It is that time of year when “Best of” lists for books, movies, art, music, etc., inundate us from every media outlet. Even so, most of us are drawn to scanning/reading them with some interest to see what we might have missed, find last-minute suggestions for gifts or just privately confirm that we’ve read/seen/listened to at least some of the stand-outs.
To be absolutely candid, this is my first year of really paying attention to more than 1-2 such lists with more than idle curiosity. I’ve been trying to understand how something makes it onto a “Best of” list. Popularity? Critical acclaim? Recency? Celebrity thumbs-up? Or, just smart promotion / hype? Of course, it is all of those things and for all the right and wrong reasons.
This is not to suggest that “Best of” lists should be ignored or looked down on. If nothing else, they provide a barometer for popular tastes, flawed as that may be. And, if you’re a writer, film-maker, artist or musician hoping to make some money with your work in your lifetime, then, of course, you must pay some attention. The only caveat, perhaps: today’s news can easily become yesterday’s trend.
It is also the first year that I have looked back to consider my “best” stories from everything I’ve read, seen or listened to. Before I share some of those with you, let me provide this fair warning: you are not likely to find “new” stuff here. This is not out of some high-handed, deliberate avoidance of new books, movies, music, art, etc. Mostly, it is because my personal wish lists are so long (and get longer each year) that I’m always playing catch-up.
Also, there are two aspects that I intend to get better at next year. Firstly, since I read a whole lot more online daily, I need to start keeping a log of some of the best articles, videos, art, photo essays, etc., that I discover and enjoy online. Secondly, and this is something I’ve resolved each year without much success, I’d like to bring some order or logic to “what” I consume.
One last point. While my reading throughout the year has been diverse enough to include books outside of the Western Canon and more women from both hemispheres, this year’s “Top 5″ lists don’t represent that diversity, as much as I wanted them to. The various possible reasons causing this are worth exploring in a different essay another time.
Well. Enough preamble. Let’s get to it.
Top 5 in Prose for 13
The first half of the year was mostly work-related business reading, which I will not subject you to. Here are, in no particular order, my top 5 literary reads of 13.
1) Candide by Voltaire – This was a re-read. A deceptively slim novella, it is a picaresque adventure story, but steeped in Voltaire’s philosophy and world views. I first came to this almost 2 decades ago and, while I enjoyed the satire and humor, I didn’t fully grasp the deeper meaning. I don’t think I’ve “nailed” it all this time around, but, certainly, it was a richer reading experience as I know more about Voltaire’s philosophy as well as Leibniz’ (who the author was refuting through fiction) and just enough of European history. Some books, as you’ve no doubt heard, need to be revisited each decade. I’ve decided, for now, Candide will be one of those books. Even if you’re not into philosophy, there’s enough adventure and history in the story to keep you entertained. That said, a caveat: this is, in a end, a rather sad story. Every character meets tragedy in varying degrees. It does end on a happy note for the survivors, though, so that’s something.
2) Richard II by Shakespeare – Another re-read. Every year, I make, and then break, a promise to myself to re-read at least 1 Shakespeare play. The stories, of course, are known well enough. But, I have literary amnesia when it comes to the luscious language, metaphors and verses. So, it was quite unplanned when I idly picked this up while watching the excellent ‘The Hollow Crown’ TV series earlier in the year. I was simply hoping to look up specific monologues and got hooked, so read the entire thing one Sunday afternoon. It is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works. Or, at least, not as popular as the rest of the Henriad plays. Read this review for more.
3) The Book of Ebenezer le Page by G B Edwards – Oh, what a joy this book was. Even just thinking about it now has me smiling. The only novel by this author and published posthumously. I’ve had my copy for years and, as shallow as this may sound, the uninteresting cover kept putting me off – John Fowles’ introduction quotes notwithstanding. But, once I started reading it, the distinctive voice of the narrator, as he confided his entire life on the British island of Guernsey, took me completely into his world. It was like sitting by a log-fire and listening to an old friend tell you about everything that had happened to him since you last met – the many tangents, the quaint descriptions of a world and life gone forever, the wistful hindsights of what he could have or should have done. Really, if there’s one book you pick from this entire list, please make it this one. Read this review for more.
4) A Book of One’s Own by Thomas Mallon – As an almost life-long journal-writer and reader of published journals, I have long been fascinated by the stories behind the latter. There are several journal anthologies out there, but this was interesting because of the context and commentary that Mallon thoughtfully provided around each excerpt. He also classified diary-writers into 7 specific types and went deeper into the whys and wherefores of diary-writing as a practice. If you enjoy reading diaries and letters, particularly those of literary types, this is a gem of a book. I must add that, beyond literary diarists, Mallon gives us many others, including some little-known everyday people from past centuries. These were a treat to discover. Read more in the Journals series.
5) To Show and to Tell by Phillip Lopate – I’m still reading this one. It is also the only 2013 publication on this list. Lopate is a well-respected essayist and I’ve read other essays by him, including his wonderful anthology, ‘The Art of the Personal Essay‘. This 2013 book, however, is like take a master-class with him on essay-writing. And, in fact, he composed it from 40 years of teaching writing, so there are many real life examples and anecdotes. A lot of the advice can apply to both fiction and non-fiction as well. That he loves and enjoys some of the same essayists as I do is an added bonus.