“Good Reads”?

In a laudable effort to bring more attention to books (and combat declining space given to reviews in newspapers), the National Book Critics Circle introduced its “Best Recommended” list last year. They asked their members to name the books of 2007 they truly loved. From the 500 responses, a list of the Top Five in Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry was created. The idea seemed good, but the results were hardly surprising. All of the titles (with the exception of the poetry) were well-known to anyone who reads book review sections.

When the list was announced in November, the NBCC also announced its intent to do monthly lists. The new lists have just gone up on the NBCC site. They’ve changed the name from the awkward “Best Recommended” to the surprisingly non-literary “Good Reads.” It looks like they’ve scaled back the monthly idea, since the list is now called “The NBCC’s Good Reads — Winter List.” The NBCC is also sponsoring Good Reads discussions in various cities (all held in bookstores).

Again, the titles on the Top Five lists are not surprising (several, like Tree of Smoke, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Brother, I’m Dying and The Shock Doctrine are even repeated from the previous lists). All (again, with the exception of poetry) have been widely reviewed. I guess it’s what we should expect. This is, after all, the National Book Critics Circle, the folks who run the review media.

Unfortunately, I just don’t feel this does much for the effort to get people to read. The NBCC says they hope these lists will become “an alternative for bestseller lists.” What they’re missing is that people pay attention to bestseller lists because they want to learn what other general readers like, not what the critics think they should read.

I think the ABA has it right with their BookSense picks. Independent booksellers choose their favorites each month, including the literary and the commercial. Each book is listed with a quote from a bookseller. The better quotes read like one-minute handsells, rather than prescriptions, such as this one from the January list:

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BEGINNER’S GREEK, by James Collins
(Little, Brown, $23.99, 9780316021555 / 0316021555)

“This is the best boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl novel I’ve read in ages. The writing is fantastic, and the characters are truly engaging. Beginner’s Greek rivals Jane Austen for an intelligent romantic read.”
Lisa Sharp, Nightbird Books, Fayetteville, AR

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