There's a List for That
in favor, apparently, of reacting to world events with six books you'll never read
Do you, like me, not know anything about Ukraine? Are you unclear why some part of your mouth kind of wants to say the Ukraine? Are you equally unsure why that would be geopolitically insensitive, you Russian spy?
There’s a list of books that can enlighten you. You can start with a short compilation by the New York Times. If the Times is all wrong for you, try the Wall Street Journal. If those institutions sound too stuffy, try USA Today. Or LitHub. Or BookRiot. Or Vogue. Even Oprah has approved a list. I don’t mean to be light about Ukraine, for the record, just book lists.
I’m torn in two about the popularity of such lists. On the one hand, I find their piffle of marketing patter during world crises hysterical and damning and symptomatic of the whole reading-as-vanity subculture the internet has made more insufferable every year. Just what Ukraine needed! BookRiot! On the other hand, I love them.
I really do. I make my own lists, and much like the lists for the Times or the Journal or Oprah Winfrey, no one reads the actual books, not even me. I have a spreadsheet of to-read titles that might number over a thousand at this point. It’s in the hundreds at least.1 I can’t remember the last time it really guided me on what to pick up next. It sort of guides me on what I wish I read, or what I might read if reading were my day job. As a librarian, reading randomly and as much as possible is as close to job-relevant as it gets, but I still don’t get to read at work. I, uh, definitely don’t write newsletters during off-desk time, either.
One of America’s sharpest literary critics, Christian Lorentzen, wrote an instantly classic take-down of literary lists for Harper’s a couple of years ago. It’s a convincing call to arms that rightly suggests the anxiety behind list-making—that is, the anxiety of our literary list-makers—is born of a world increasingly structured like a Netflix menu. His real subject is the decline of the book review as the frontline of popular literary engagement, and he’s pretty much correct from beginning to end, as far as I can tell.
Except on one point. He, like many critics, disbelieves in the general reader. Most good writers do. The general reader is a marketing guide, a way to make almost any work less interesting before the work has even begun. I don’t believe in the general reader when writing, whoever he or she is, because I don’t want a specter hanging over and haranguing the effort. I want people to put their hands on my stories and remember they have blood in their temples. Although even that’s too conceptual, still too much of a concession to a figure who doesn’t exist. In practice, I pretty much have a thought or a scene or a person I’ve made up in my head which won’t leave me alone, and the only way to exorcise them, to complete their endless circuits in my brain, is to write.
But, look, there are trends, and people fit into them more often than we’d like, and as a librarian I am telling you that the general reader is not a complete myth.
The general reader shows up at my desk every week in many forms and with many different hopes and desires and even a surprising range of tastes, but what he or she always responds well to is a list. What every outlet making lists is doing—often poorly, and too often in lieu of actual criticism—is providing what librarians call readers’ advisory. “Oh,” the New York Times asks, “you’re interested in Ukraine’s current conflict? Here are some different titles that emphasize different aspects of what’s going on. I hope that helps.” And, obviously, in a small and trivial way, and for the edification of people who will never have anything substantial to do vis-à-vis Ukraine—not even once in our limited lives—it does help.
Even the lists Lorentzen hates the most, the “Hot Books for Cold Days” types of lists, are just a digitization of book displays. Go to your local bookshop or library and you’ll see exactly this kind of clustered banality on every wall. I make them all the time. And would you like to guess what’s the most popular display at every library or bookstore I’ve ever been to or worked at? “Staff Recommendations,” of course. In other words, a perfect analogue to “Editors at The Times Book Review choose the best fiction and nonfiction titles this year.”
To be clear (you know, in the mud-like sense), Lorentzen is right. We already have libraries and bookstores and BookRiot and whatever else. There’s no need for the New York Times and other institutions with worthwhile critical wattage to cut the power. But a list is a place to start, and the worst issues only arise when—like those endless nights of 30-second Netflix previews—the lists become ends unto themselves, a way to stay limply informed, to continue lockstep with a trend.
Personally, I do want to know more about Ukraine. And I do have kids. And there’s just a whole bunch of TV I absolutely must binge. And like the hypothetical couple Lorentzen rips to shreds in his article, the quickest way to find recommended titles is the digital Feed. The Feed can’t be everything, of course, and its monoculture of empty taste should be resisted.
All the same, the Feed fits my life, worthless lump that I am, and lists fit the Feed. As a means of making literary claims on the real estate of our attention, they will only become more important. For general bums like me, a list is even a way out of the stream from within the stream, an invitation to turn off the Feed and go find The Gates of Europe, by Serhii Plokhy. It sounds like a good book, and I’d never heard of the title right until it was this moment’s list-leader.
To celebrate lists, here are some books I’ll never read, and you shouldn’t either:
Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce—I’ll allow that Ulysses has wormed its heft into my idiot’s heart, but you’d have to do more than pay me to read Joyce’s last novel. You’d have to publish me, and handsomely, and then you’d have to tell everyone that I’m better than James Joyce in 5,000 words for the New Yorker. Ulysses should be mentioned here no matter what, though, if only because it is the greatest book of lists I’ve ever read.
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith—Nothing will ever lessen the blow of learning what age Zadie Smith was when she published this novel. Not wrote the thing, but published. I won’t even repeat it here. It’s obscene. Mozart can be all the prodigy he wants to be, he’s been dead for over two hundred years. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite living authors, her essays alone punch that ticket, and when I finally do read this novel, it’ll be with a pile of my own early-twenties manuscripts burning in the fireplace to warm my cold, cold heart. She’s the best, but there’s no reason she had to become so that far ahead of the field.
Every Single Self-Help Book Aimed at Men—I also won’t go to therapy. Or drink water when America went to all that trouble of inventing Dr. Pepper. And if anyone suggests I get eight hours of sleep, I’ll staple my eyelids open.
Cross Fire, by James Patterson—I’m making another blanket statement here. I could choose any of James Patterson’s actually sinful contributions to literature, but this one crossed my line of sight first. If you like Patterson, stop. Go read Jack Reacher or the nearest diner’s breakfast menu. Both are better written.
Look, I’m Sorry I Was So Spicy About James Patterson—Every librarian despises the man. He’s an avalanche of shelf-space that bullies our collections. But that’s no excuse for correctly suggesting that
heI mean his books shouldn’t exist.
My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgård—Honestly, I might read this six-volume auto-fiction monstrosity at some point. The very exercise of making a list of books I’ll never read makes me want to read the books I’m listing. Besides, Zadie Smith loved My Struggle and she’s almost never wrong.
I love you all.
Okay. I counted. It’s around 650, or more. A list whose uselessness is contained in the number 650.