This morning, first cup of delightfully aromatic coffee at my side, I opened my e-mail. First up was a message from the Sony Reader Store: “Top 10 Electronic Books of 2012!” I haven’t kept a count over the last few weeks, but this must be at least the 100th list of “top books” I have been exposed to in newspapers, magazines, and on-line. Don’t get me wrong, I love lists; I have expounded on that personality quirk of mine in this forum in the past. This year seems to have a superabundance of “Best” lists, and even I am starting to feel that there are too many lists. It may be that there were just as many in past years, but my own on-line behavior, joining Facebook, “liking” pages related to books and bookselling, and linking from one place to another in those fugue states (I call it “lost in cyberspace”) that cause us all to wonder where the last two hours went, has caused me to be more aware of them this year. Whatever the reason, I am feeling a bit “list-exhausted.”
Some of these lists, of course, are pure marketing efforts, as is the one I encountered this morning; there is nothing there that hasn’t been on best seller lists for weeks or months and hasn’t appeared on 99 of the other 100 lists. It’s just an effort to sell more copies to those who lived in caves until December 1 and were unaware of these titles.
It’s the other lists, those by the editors of respected publications, by bookstore staff, by well-known reviewers, and by well-read individuals, that cause more angst. I am reminded of all the outstanding work I have not yet read, and my own “to-read” list grows. I see books I was unaware of, and wonder how I missed them. I rethink my book ordering plans, knowing that many of these books will shortly be reissued in paperback editions. And I wonder if 2013 is the year I will make good on my threat to lock the doors of my shop and just read until I am sated.
Seeing books by authors I know personally and whose work I admire on these lists, especially “national-level” compilations, is a true joy. I love writing “congrats” e-mails! Finding books I enjoyed and have recommended to others on the lists is also a pleasure; we all love to have our good taste confirmed. It’s when I see a book listed and wonder how in heaven’s name THAT was considered “best” that I remember that all of these lists are assembled by one or more humans, and everyone has different tastes. As I often tell customers who are apologetic about not liking crime fiction, or a certain author, or something else they think they should like: It would be a very dull world if we all like the same things.
And so I begin to cull the enormous number of lists to make my own reading and ordering more manageable. I remember that those compiled by bookstore staff will often have books by regional authors in their area among the top picks. It’s not a bias per se, but the simple fact that their customers have more interest in those authors; every region produces excellent crime fiction, and it often gets national attention. But readers like familiar territory. Janet Evanovich and Harlan Coben have both been wildly successful nationally and internationally, yet I have met customers visiting from other parts of the United States who have never heard of them. New Jersey readers lap up every word; they are familiar with Stephanie Plum’s Trenton and Harlan Coben’s New Jersey suburbs. I would guess that Dennis Lehane, whose books sell well in my store, sells even better in Boston. I sell a lot of books by lesser known writers with the magic words “New Jersey author.”
I realize also that there are many “notable” books selected by the best known book review that hold no interest for me or most of my customers; I wish I could read everything, but I can’t, so I can eliminate several more. I remember that some reviewers seem always to favor books that are to my taste, while others tout many works I find “iffy.” I don’t have to read or stock everything that every reviewer puts on their “best” list. And finally, I think about one of my best sources of information: the readers who tell me every day about the books they love and why.
Lynne Patrick touched on the subject of these “best” lists in her post earlier this week. She asked if seeing a book on one of the lists would motivate someone to read it, or discourage interest. For me, seeing a book I am unfamiliar with or have not paid much attention to on a list I consider credible motivates me to investigate a little more. I will read reviews of it and try to learn why it was considered a top pick, keeping in mind that list compilers and reviewers may or may not like what I or my customers like. Thus being on a “best list” brings it to my, and others’, attention, giving it at least another chance with someone who may have overlooked it earlier in the year.
The year is drawing to a close, and the Best Books of 2012 lists will be archived as we move on to the new offerings of a new year. There will be respite until at least late January; then it’s time for Edgar nominees, the beginning of the awards nominees lists. For those of us with listmania, there’s always something.