With the end of 2020 came the traditional surge of “Top Books” lists. The first I encountered was was the New York Times “Top 10 Best Books of 2020,” in which the editors of The Times Book Review chose the best fiction and nonfiction titles of 2020. Other than Barack Obama’s memoir (which had only come out near the end of the year), I had heard of none of the titles and, after reading the blurbs, I’m unlikely to investigate any of them further. I’m guessing I am not the target audience of those book review editors.
No surprise – there was not a romance novel in sight on the list.
Next up was the “100 Notable Books of 2020” also by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. I figured a list of 100 titles would cover a broader range of books. My mistake. After reading through it, I mentally renamed this list “98 books I’ve never heard of.”
The Washington Posts’ list, written by Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, was closer to what I was looking for. There were both books I’d heard of and books I’d read on it. I especially liked the framing of the list:
“In addition to comfy pants and my dishwasher, reading romance got me through 2020. These stories will get you through the holidays and the last nine decades of 2020. Here’s to a brighter 2021 for all of us.”
During these crazy pandemic times, the books on Wendell’s list have definite appeal. On the other hand, none of the books on the New York Times lists made me think “oh, this is a great book to read to distract me from the angst in the world.”
Another good list was Bookriot’s Comforting Books for Hard Times: Soothing Reads in Every Genre. As the title promised, there were a wide range of books, including another Courtney Milan title, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure, as well as Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, which I read, enjoyed, and mentioned before on this blog.
“These books have gotten me through personal crisis before, and they’re getting me through this one. They are not completely without danger or death of any kind, but they make me laugh out loud, transport and distract me, and remind me that kindness hope, and humor abound among humans.”
I stopped Googling for lists after perusing “Finding Comfort in the Classics” which claimed to offer “time-tested books that offer escape from the present moment”, but included things like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and a collection of essays by George Orwell. E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was on the list, so it wasn’t a complete loss, but few of the other titles made me think, “oh, reading this will be a great way to distract me (in a good way) from the pandemic.”
It made me wonder who decides on these lists and what kind of criteria do they use? We’ve heard/seen time after time about the popularity of romances in the marketplace. They are consistent moneymakers–even through periods of recession/depression–and can almost be guaranteed to leave you feeling happy by the ending. Since books often seem to hit best-seller lists they instant they are published (or even before), when the buying public has had little chance to weigh in, I have to wonder if the lists (especially those that have a “literary” bent) are, in some cases, more like popularity contests, perhaps like selecting prom king and queen, with the publishers and marketing folks lobbying for their candidates.
My own personal comfort read lists contains:
- Anything by Jennifer Crusie (except maybe Sizzle)
- Anything by Loretta Chase
- Anything by Georgette Heyer (except Penhallow)
- Ngaio Marsh Mysteries
- Selected Louise Penny Mysteries
I have a whole pile of new books to read, once my comfort-reading phase passes, but for right now, I’m enjoying spending time with favorite characters, communities, and authors. And if none of the titles are on anyone else’s list, well, I’m okay with that.
So, how about you? Are you comfort reading or reaching out for something new?