Editorial by Andy Selsberg
At the end of each year, our innate human itch for lists gets pretty well-scratched: best, worst, and most-seen movies, top songs, choicest quotes, most salacious scandals, hottest web memes—you name it. When it comes to books, I admit I’m often more excited about reading bestseller lists than I am about reading the bestsellers. I think this is pretty standard. It’s thrilling, like going to the track every weekend and watching the horses you bet on consistently lose. Still, both the year-end and weekly book lists leave me wanting more.
The New York Times list, USA Today, IndieBound, and Amazon rankings all contain only a slice of the truth, and none have hard numbers. Book reporting should take a note from college football polls, where, with different polls, the coaches get a vote, the sportswriters get a vote, and even the robots get a say with computerized rankings. These stir up good debates. Books could borrow from this model. Have some lists based on sales (with dollar amounts, please, like Hollywood). There could also be a reviewer’s poll, a reader’s poll, and a writer’s poll. Give us more to argue about. A list that just says what people bought only tells us what people bought. What were their expressions like afterward?
And I love reading about dizzying advances. How about a year-end list of the biggest advances? Biggest advances with smallest sales? Smallest advances with the biggest sales?
Now we’re getting at the irresistible, murky heart of publishing.
I want to know which books had the widest margins, the biggest fonts. The five most celebrity-studded launch parties. The six books that inspired the most rage. The eleven authors with the most talk show appearances.
The one thing about the Kindle that excites me most is its potential to produce hot new statistics. Someday we’ll get lists not only of what people like and buy, but of how many pages are actually being read. Can you imagine: a list of the most-purchased but least-read books? Why not? What do we have to hide? I’m guessing Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day might be up there, even if this year’s Inherent Vice was widely finished. Some political memoir cinder blocks would probably also be on there. And I don’t think this should necessarily be seen as a negative thing—there’s an art to getting people to buy and not finish books. Of course, we’d also get lists of what’s getting read all the way through, all the time.
Once the Kindle stats get really thorough, I’d like to know each week which specific sentences got re-read most frequently. And is it because they were beautiful and necessary, or impenetrable and baffling? Maybe there could be a list for each. This would go some ways to making up for the fact that Amazon at some point removed their very cool feature where you could see what the bestsellers were by city or business. You could look up what Congresspeople were buying! It was a way to take the temperature of a place you were moving to, or just left, or the town you grew up in. I’m webstalgic for that widget.
We need, or at least crave, bestseller lists, even though they lead to a rich-get-richer problem that narrows experience and choices—you do something because everybody else is. But I’ll take that tapered world over the chaos of listlessness. I look forward to the year when we can compile a list of the ten most read and loved literary sentences. Maybe even the most read word of the year. We just have to make sure that we continue to read other words, ones that aren’t on anyone’s list.
Andy Selsberg is the editor of Dear Old Love, a collection of short notes to people we’ve loved (or at least liked). Requited or unrequited. He has written for The Onion, GQ, Oxford American, Salon.com, and other publications. He is also an adjunct lecturer of English at John Jay College, CUNY, and a former stand-up comedian. He lives in New York City and his website is www.dearoldlove.com.
BUY: Dear Old Love
VISIT: The original Dear Old Love Web site.
DISCUSS: Bestsellers and Others, What Other Book Lists Do You Want?