Not Another Book List

7 September 2022

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Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. If I throw together another one, is anyone even looking? With that in mind, the following is not a list. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

The Prize-Winning Novel makes every literary list. When they come out, publishers promote them as the latest gift from a living god. That’s what they are. They are worth revisiting, revealing more of themselves on a second or third read. Google Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, or Toni Morrison (sadly deceased).

The Debut Novel has a special buzz. The publisher loads the cover with rave reviews from notable writers and critics. “… best debut this year,” they might say, or “… destined to join To Kill A Mockingbird as a modern classic.” The products of aggressive searches for the next big thing, they may feel a little forced. But they are inclusive, reflecting the Own Voices and young talents whose bold fresh stories move the conversation forward. Read Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, reviewed here. Look for Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and Zadie Smith’s debut from 2000, White Teeth.

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The Old Standby is like Saturday jeans. These books are worth their inch on the bookshelf. When it’s time to take stock, face facts, and lighten the load for the moving truck, these old friends always make the cut. Have you read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces? Try Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

A Bestseller moves a gazillion copies, gets made into a massive movie franchise, making the writer rich and famous. These things are fun. They are called “un-put-down-able.” Other euphemisms include “beach reads,” “lighter fare,” and “guilty pleasures.” Good ones don’t come along often, and the inevitable sequels are nearly always second rate. Not much staying power, either. The top titles of 2012 were Fifty Shades of Gray and The Hunger Games. Thoughtful reads to return to for deeper insight? Or (maybe more than) slightly embarrassing?

Vintage Children’s Books are a minefield. Old titles often contain language and images that reflect the norms and assumptions of earlier generations. Feared for stirring up charged memories and reinforcing negative stereotypes, they are also a reservoir of our history and heritage. We can now show ugly attitudes for what they are (destructive, short-sighted, and immoral) and further the important progress underway in our children’s generation. I don’t recommend these books, but when you find one, be brave. See if there’s more to learn from having a tough talk with a young person than lobbying the library to remove it from the shelves.

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Most readers have a to-read list long enough to roll right out the front door. If you’re a glutton for punishment, check back here from time to time for more thoughts on books to read (or avoid). Follow my blog for updates on recent stories, book reviews, and articles. And enjoy your day.

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