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A year of reading; here's what results

December 09, 2007|David L. Ulin; Nick Owchar

It's that time of year again, when media outlets and reviewers make out their lists of noteworthy books. We at The Times are no different; today's Book Review features our favorite books for 2007. As we did last year, we've chosen 50 titles -- 25 in fiction and poetry and 25 in nonfiction. We've also asked our online columnists to cite favorite mysteries, science fiction, children's books and paperbacks.

One question that often comes up around favorite books lists is the criteria for selection -- how these books get on the list. The process is different everywhere, but for us, it's a mix of intention and serendipity. In the first place, we don't look at other lists until ours is compiled; we don't want to be influenced. In addition, we restrict our list to books we've reviewed, which narrows the pool a bit, although we review something in the vicinity of 1,000 books a year. Last, we use the review as a guide; if it's negative, that book doesn't make the list.

Then we hash it out.

The way it works is this: Everybody on the Book Review staff comes up with his or her own set of selections, which we then correlate into a master list. Some are obvious choices -- Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes," for instance, or Judith Freeman's "The Long Embrace." Others we argue over, going back and forth, discussing why a book worked for us or why it didn't, making a case pro or con. The key is to recognize that all these lists are fundamentally subjective, which makes the whole experience much more fun. That's why we call our list "Favorite Books" as opposed to "Best Books"; who's to say, after all, what the best book truly is, or even if such a designation is relevant at all?

There's another subjective component at work -- which is, of course, the size of the list. Our decision to settle on 50 titles is partly a concession to space, but it's also meant to keep things from getting out of hand. If the list gets too long, it starts to blur, to become predictable, unspecialized. Better to err on the side of concision, even though this means certain books that might have made a longer list inevitably get left off.

And yet this year, as in other years, we've highlighted some unexpected choices: Anders Nilsen's "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow," for instance, a profoundly moving experiment in graphic storytelling, or Irene Dische's novel "The Empress of Weehawken." We've also left off some big books, most notably Philip Roth's "Exit Ghost" and Denis Johnson's National Book Award-winning "Tree of Smoke."

You can argue with that -- and, in fact, you're welcome to, for this is the ultimate role of the favorite books list. It's a conversation starter, not a definitive statement of what's important, and when it works, it opens up a discussion between critic and reader.

There are choices here that some of us at Book Review disagree with, both in terms of what has made the list and what has not. But that too is in the nature of the enterprise, which is, in the end, a matter of enthusiasm, an expression of the reader in us all.

-- David L. Ulin


The writing is on the wall; it's poetry

It's nice to see that, in some places, writing on public walls isn't only advertising and graffiti. England's Sheffield Hallam University decided that the best solution to decorating a plain building on campus was to ask Andrew Motion, British poet laureate, to compose something. The result -- a new poem called "What If?" -- was inscribed on its nine-story facade and unveiled last month as part of the "Text and the City" initiative, a program organized by the Off the Shelf literary festival.

In part, the poem declares to passersby:

Pause now, and let the sight of this sheer cliff

Become a priming-place which lifts you off ...

For an image of Motion's poem on the building, go to: em_feature.shtml

-- Nick Owchar


Using one's own moral compass

Whenever someone calls the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel "The Golden Compass" anti-religious, I want to ask: "Have you seen the film?"

I have, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how thoroughly the book's religious context has been stripped from the movie, making it less about the discontents of doctrine than the more amorphous battle between authoritarianism and free will. Of course, even "The Golden Compass' " most vocal detractors are willing to acknowledge this; the film, they claim, is a gateway to lure unsuspecting kids into reading Pullman's heresies. Yet watching "The Golden Compass," what I'm mostly left with is the sense that Pullman's novel has been reduced to something thin and insubstantial, a Hollywood feel-good extravaganza that could have (should have?) been much more.

Rather than be distracted by "The Golden Compass' " purported atheist agenda, we'd be better served by having an actual conversation about the larger questions it seeks to raise. What is the nature of existence? How about the relationship between religion and God?

More to the point, why is it that every time a film comes out that even tangentially challenges Christian orthodoxy, we have to go through this ridiculous song and dance? If Pullman has anything to tell us, it's the value of free thinking. So why are we so frightened of deciding for ourselves?

-- D.L.U.

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