The Delicate Art of Recommending a Book

by Patrick on February 1, 2008

The National Book Critics Circle has come out with a list of recommended reads, or “Good Reads,” as they call their list (not be confused with the literary social networking site Good Reads, a problem many people have had, judging from the comments left on the NBCC blog yesterday after the name change went into effect). I want to be perfectly clear about something up front — I love the National Book Critics Circle. Their annual awards “get it right” (at least in my opinion) far more often than the National Book Award or the Pulitzer (the Gold Glove of literary awards). Their criticism and poetry awards bring attention to books that often don’t have much of a home in the marketplace, and for this, I thank them.

That being said, their recommended list leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not that the books on the list aren’t good — they are — it’s that they’re, well, a little obvious. My friend Cory, blogger at Skylight Books in LA, pointed out that Philip Roth made the list. Looking at the fiction list, I feel a little like Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, “Philip Roth? Not obvious. No, not obvious at all. Come on, NBCC, couldn’t you make it easier? What about Hemingway? How about William Shakespeare? Why not recommend Hamlet?” I don’t mean to hammer on Philip Roth, who I love, but come on. Does he really need the readers? Other books on the fiction list represent some of the major books of the year, including Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The one quasi-obscure title on the list is Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, a book that comes in at #35 on the New York Times bestseller list, one spot behind Diaz’ title. The non-fiction list offers little in the way of “off-the-beaten” path recommendations, either, with NBCC Award nominees Legacy of Ashes, The World Without Us, and Brother, I’m Dying all making the list.

Some of the blame should go to the methodology of how these lists are compiled. According to the NBCC, “Polling our nearly 800 members, as well as all the former finalists and winners of our book prize, we asked, What 2007 books have you read that you have truly loved?” By casting such a wide net, the sample size becomes so large that only the truly well-known rise to the top (The list of every book receiving multiple votes is available in each category). That’s not a problem, except that it raises the question of who the list serves? If I’ve already heard of every book on the list, what good is the list? Is it aimed at people who haven’t read a book in years?

I applaud the NBCC for stimulating literary discussion, and obviously every one of the books on these lists is a good book, worthy of being read far and wide. I would hope, however, that the NBCC would use its position in the literary vanguard to promote some books that maybe aren’t getting the readership they deserve. That would be a list people could actually use.

(The NBCC will have an event at Skylight Books this Tuesday (2/5), when Mark Sarvas will lead a panel discussion of exactly how this list came to be).