A few weeks ago, the estimable David J. Montgomery of Crime Fiction Dossier posted his list of the top 10 detective novels. This prompted me to consider top 10 lists in general and detective novels in particular. It wasn't just me. Peter Rozovsky of the Philly Inquirer and Detectives Beyond Borders put up his own list of international crime fiction favorites.

I dislike the convention of the top 10 list -- except when done by David Letterman. I especially dislike it when done with books, other than in the spirit of "Hey! Let's start an argument!" -- which Mr. Montgomery later pointed out was one of his intents, to stimulate debate. Recall the New York Times' recent embarassing foray into declaring a "best" American novel of the past 25 years. As with most superlatives, "best" is an unprovable claim. It's mostly just an emphatic way of saying, "I really, really liked this and want to be rewarded with my name in a blurb."

What's more, declaring a "best" is physically impossible for a book critic. A film critic could actually see just about every major and independent release in a year (250-350 films). So his "best of" lists have some degree of credibility.

Compiling the year-end top 10 books for The Dallas Morning News while I was the book columnist was frustrating because I could claim only 90-100 books read that year. Meanwhile, the publishing industry is churning out some 175,000 new titles annually. So a degree of modesty in one's claims of "bestness" would seem to be called for: Through the course of an entire year, even The New York Times reviews less than 2 percent of all books released.

The most one can say with some certitude, then, is that these are my top "recommendations," my "favorite" books (no, the Morning News wouldn't let me change "Year-End Top 10" to "A few of my favorite things"). To determine these favorites, a simple rule of thumb suffices: Which books would I happily read again? Which books would I likely learn from -- even on a second or third reading?

More to come ...

October 18, 2006 10:59 AM | | Comments (1)



Thanks for the mention. Thanks, too, for the careful distinction you make in noting that I posted a list of favorites, rather than a "top 10." Mine was emphatically not such a list. It contains eleven items, for one thing, and it includes one author's body of work, one short story, and one entry that consists of two novels.

I share your misgivings about lists, and I like your rules of thumb. I have read several of my entries more than once.


Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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