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markk

markk

Currently reading

Edward the Confessor
Frank Barlow
Progress: 118/375 pages
For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012
William B. Feis, Peter Maslowski, Allan R. Millett
Progress: 181/736 pages
James Madison: A Biography
Ralph Louis Ketcham
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Tales in Time: The Man Who Walked Home and Other Stories
Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Lewis Padgett, Garry Douglas Kilworth, Peter Crowther, James Tiptree Jr., Charles de Lint, Spider Robinson, Jack Finney, L. Sprague de Camp, Brian W. Aldiss, H.G. Wells

The fundamental conceit of a "best books" list

This morning I find myself in a crabby mood. I need to hustle out early today, I need to straighten up the house before I leave, I needed to get the kid out the door for school before that, and he needed to straighten up his things before he left. So when I went online to find something to read while eating my breakfast I did so primed for annoyance.

 

And perhaps that helped me to appreciate something that has been staring me in the face for years now. It came to me when my Pocket feed coughed up this list on Slate of "The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years." It's the sort of listicle (yes, I'm using that word) that's usually catnip for me, so I clicked on the link and checked out their choices.

 

Now I've already acknowledged that I was primed for annoyance, yet I suspect that even if I were in a better mood this list would have triggered me. It's nothing against the books themselves: I have no doubt that all are fine works and I would probably enjoy and benefit from reading most if not all of them. But it bothered me intensely how narrowly constructed the list was, containing as it did the usual titles by well-repped authors that I have seen celebrated in a dozen similar pieces. Given the scope of the list and that it was by a "team" of two readers rather than a single one, I was hoping to encounter something a little different, or at least one or two of the titles that I as a nonfiction reader might include on such a list.

 

And that's when the blindingly obvious became the visible: contrary to the headline, this isn't a list of the fifty best nonfiction books of the last quarter-century, just the fifty best nonfiction books written in the last quester century that the article's authors have read. I know this is a "well, duh!" moment for most of you, but this is the moment when the underlying arrogance of the article coalesced for me. I suppose my real issue here is with how the authors represent their choices. A "definitive" list? A definitive list of nonfiction books would include far more than just the "memoirs . . . books of reportage, collections of essays, travelogues, works of cultural criticism, passionate arguments, [and] a compendium of household tips" on this list. Was Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl left off because it wasn't as good as the fifty other books, or was it because nobody pressed a copy into their hands? Did Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel not make the list simply because neither of the authors ever bothered to walk through the History section of their local Barnes and Noble at any point in the past two decades? When books like these don't make the cut but a list of essays by David Foster Wallace does, I start to appreciate how any such list is premised on a conceit, and one that we need to stop representing these as authoritative in any sense.