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Best of the Best-Books-of-2018 lists

Are these the best books of 2018?

 

Earlier this year I had the idea for Booketlist, an app to help avid readers create and manage a lifetime reading plan—because so many books, so little time. To determine what classics should be included, I’m turning to books like Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and Michael Dirda’s Reading Classics for Pleasure for inspiration. But when it comes to contemporary literature, the task gets harder. Has enough time passed to know what the classics of the twenty-first century are? How best to keep the app up-to-date each year as more and more books are published?

To examine that question, I took a look at three of the recently published 2018 end-of-year lists from prominent English language (two American, one British) media organizations:

  1. NPR’s Book Concierge for 2018 (319 books)
  2. The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 (as you might expect, this list encompasses the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2018)
  3. The Financial Times Books of the Year 2018 (195 books)

Each list is a different beast that I’ll talk about in a separate post dedicated to making sense of these lists. For now, I’ll jump straight to the results of which books show up on all three lists. In alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction, the nine books that are common between these three best-of lists are:

Non-Fiction

  1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  2. Educated – Tara Westover (This title made this list thanks to a reader nomination on the FT list. The FT is the only list of the three that includes a readers’ best books section.)
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  4. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction

  1. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  2. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  3. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  4. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
  5. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

What does this list of nine books tell us about 2018? Perhaps it’s the wrong question since they would have been written in the years before their publication. But do they contribute to some kind of thematically linked contemporary portrait? In non-fiction, we find a tale of misdeeds in Silicon Valley, a memoir of a woman who grew up with a survivalist father, a re-examination of LSD in an age of increasing legalization of drugs from the man who taught us about the ethics of food, and a critique of the elites’ ability to change the world for good—a nice link straight back to Bad Blood and the misdeeds of Silicon Valley.

In fiction, we find a novel comprised of two novellas, one about an affair between a younger and older person, the other about the detention of an Iraqi-American; a Wall Street bro on a road trip; a novel about feminism and women’s mentoring relationships; another about suicide and womanizing and power imbalance; and finally, one about slavery and adventure. A line from the synopsis of Halliday’s Asymmetry seems a neat summary of the group of all nine books as well, each of which in some way “explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.” While these imbalances are timeless themes, they have particularly contemporary resonance in our age of #metoo, BLM, refugee crises, wealth inequality, political strongmen, and the Kardashians, to name a few.

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I started this process by comparing The New York Times’s 100 to NPR’s list of 319 books. I assumed I’d find almost all the NYT books on the NPR list, but there were less than half—45 to be exact—in common. Here’s that list, also in alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction 

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. Arthur Ashe: A Life – Raymond Arsenault
  3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  4. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis – Sam Anderson
  5. Calypso – David Sedaris
  6. Educated – Tara Westover
  7. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress– Steven Pinker
  8. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  9. God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State – Lawrence Wright
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  12. In Pieces – Sally Field
  13. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade
  14. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown
  15. Small Fry – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
  16. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War – Joanne B. Freeman
  17. The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
  18. The Library Book – Susan Orlean
  19. There Will Be No Miracles Here – Casey Gerald
  20. These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore
  21. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction – Here I noted if the book had been nominated for a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, as well as genre where the book is something other than a novel of literary fiction. The inclusion of four Man Booker nominees on the list highlights the omission of the winner, Northern Irish writer Anna Burns’s Milkman, and the folly of publishing best-of lists at the end of November: the novel’s US release date is December 4, 2018, and it was included in the British FT’s best-of list.

  1. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (National Book Award finalist)
  2. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  3. Crudo – Olivia Laing
  4. Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
  5. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  6. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  7. Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel – Lawrence Osborne (thriller)
  8. Sabrina – Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
  9. Severance – Ling Ma
  10. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  11. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  12. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez (National Book Award winner)
  13. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (National Book Award finalist)
  14. The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
  15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
  16. The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  17. The Overstory – Richard Powers (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  18. The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani
  19. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst
  20. The Witch Elm – Tana French (thriller)
  21. There There – Tommy Orange (National Book Award finalist)
  22. Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Man Booker Prize longlist)
  23. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  24. Your Duck Is My Duck – Deborah Eisenberg (stories)

A final note: I built these lists mostly with Excel and eyeballing titles rather than by dumping the data into a database and systematically querying it, ie there may be mistakes. Please let me know if you notice any.

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