by James Wallace Harris, 12/18/21
December is the time when we get loads of best-books-of-the-year lists. I enjoy looking at all those lists because I love finding the books that are the most recommended. I can’t read everything. I can’t even read everything that’s great.
I’m lucky to read 4-6 new books as they come out during the year, and sometimes they are among the ones critics have loved. That’s satisfying. For any given year I probably read 10-12 of its best books, that’s including fiction and nonfiction. That’s out of thousands of books published each year, so I get a microscopic sampling of books published. That’s why I work to find the best books, and by best, I mean the most talked about, the most recommended, the most newsworthy books.
I read on average one book a week, or 52 books a year. Most of them are older books, usually from the 20th century, sometimes from the 19th, and on rare occasions even older. I don’t want my head stuck completely in the past, so I try to read 10-12 books each year from the most recent two years. I usually discover a handful of books as they appear during the year, and then identify several more to read in the following year from the end-of-the-year lists.
Over time I’m discovering the most useful best-of-the-year lists. Here are the lists I’m using this year:
Books We Love – NPR. NPR lists over 2,800 books, but they provide a filtering system to help you zero in on the ones you might prefer. Their site has yearly lists back through 2013. Just the button for Staff Picks lists 179 books, that’s way too many. What I do is study the covers. And then go on to other best-of-the-year lists. It’s like the old TV quiz show Concentration, I try to spot covers again from memory. But instead of finding the pair, I try to find covers that are shown on the most lists.
Of their Staff Picks I’ve already discovered the following during 2021:
- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (bought)
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History o Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (bought)
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (read)
- Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (read)
- Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer (read)
- Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule (read)
- Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert (read)
- Bewilderment by Richard Powers (reading)
New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021. This is another very long list. But they also offer another shorter list, The 10 Best Books of 2021. Sadly, the long list doesn’t include cover photos, so it’s harder to play my Concentration cover game, so reading the short paragraphs about them is important. And The New York Times even offers an even longer list, 100 Notable Books of 2021, this time with covers. The critics at the Times picked many of the books the NPR critics picked, and many books I’ve already heard some word of mouth. These are the ones I want to try so far:
- Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
- Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
- The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
- The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Playlist for the Apocalypse: Poems by Rita Dove
- When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut
- The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen
- The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul
- On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
- The Secret of Life by Howard Markel
Vogue, Vulture, and Time have recommendations that are often similar to NPR and The New York Times. Time also recommends another book I’ve already read: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. That makes me feel I did pretty good finding books coming out during 2021. And they recommend Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe that’s been on most of these lists. I’m just not interested in that subject, but with so many recommendations I feel maybe I should try it. These lists also reinforce the books I list above that I already want to read.
Publishers Weekly has a website system like NPR that recommends way too many books to consider but has a filter system to narrow things down by genre and interest. Their database goes back to 2010, and their lists have links to the original reviews. Once again I’m seeing the same covers of books I’ve been wanting to read, but I’ve spotted two additional books to add to my list from their Top Ten List: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles and The War For Gloria by Atticus Lish. I’ve been remembering those two covers from the lists I’ve been seeing, and their descriptions are enticing.
I believe I’ve found a total of 23 books from 2021 that interested me most, and I’ve already read 7 of them. That leaves 16. I doubt I’ll get all 23 books read in the coming year. It depends on how many 2022 books attract my attention first, or how mired in the past I become. If I read all 23 that will double my normal current book consumption habit.
There is one last list to mention, Goodreads Choice Awards 2021. These are voted by members of Goodreads. Sometimes the bookworms pick the same books as the critics, and sometimes not. However, this list at Goodreads uncovers a lot more fun genre titles.
Lastly, I’ve discovered that if I keep these recommended novels in mind, sometimes they appear in sales at Bookbub, or in the Kindle Daily Deal, or on Audible. Also, many of them come to Scribd, a book subscription library. I think of Scridb as Netflix for books. Five of the sixteen books I want to read are already available at Scribd. It’s a bargain at $9.99 a month.