Coloured Opinion

Why we will not bring you a Best Books of the Year list in 2016 (and, possibly, ever again)

Comparisons are bad enough. To limit them to the year of publication of a book is capricious.

A calendar year seems an utterly arbitrary period for which to determine best – or worst, for that matter – books. Comparisons, as we know, are odious to begin with. But if at all such comparisons have to be made, why should a book published on January 2, 2016, be compared with one published on December 2 of the same year, rather than with a book that came out on, say, December 2 of the previous year?

Does each calendar year bring with it its own set of parameters with which to judge books published in that particular period? And are the merits of a book only to be considered in the year in which it is published, and not thereafter? If the best books live for decades and even centuries, the whole purpose of competitive evaluation in the year of publication seems self-defeating.

How can individual experiences be compared?

Then there is the whole question of how to decide that one book is better than another. When an individual or a jury announces that these were the seven, or seventeen – or, increasingly, in this list-based world, seventy-seven – best books of the year, they are, obviously, only talking of some books they liked.

As for the word “best”, it is meaningless unless the judge is confident of having read, and weighed, every single book during the year. Since this is impossible, the whole idea of compiling a list of the best books of the year, no matter how many, is an exercise in ego and deception. (This, of course, is applicable to any work of art: films, plays, songs, videos, installations, paintings, you name it.)

In this context, we might as well also point out that literary awards are doomed to fail for this very reason. It would be honest if an award were to be given for a book (or books) that these specific members of this particular jury liked a great deal, without them – or the award itself – making any claim to have identified the best book.

Indeed, there is, obviously, no such thing as the best book. There are books that some people liked – and there is no way to actually quantify to any reasonable level of approximation – leave alone accuracy – the number of those people. And yet, there is a great deal of excitement among both writers, editors and publishers when their books feature in one of the ‘best of the year’ lists that so many newspapers, magazines and websites feel obliged to put out near the end of every year.

Then comes another question: why is it necessary for a book to be liked by a large number of people – or even by those discerning individuals who are asked to compile these lists, or serve on juries for awards? Is a book not an intimate, personal dialogue between a text and its reader, leading to a unique experience in each case? Can the quality of this experience possibly be predicted by a broad stroke list of ‘best books’ or ‘the best book’?

What’s sacrosanct about a year?

Now for another fallacy. When we refer to the best books of 2016, as they are commonly considered, are we talking only of books published in that year? The publishing date of a book is often a business decision, determined by the strategic and operational considerations of the publisher.

Very few books are written specifically for being published in a particular year, unless, perhaps, they happen to be commemorating an anniversary of some kind. (One also cannot rule out the influence of numerologists consulted by writers, especially in India.) But the (presumably) artistic merit of certain books are considered together only because they were published in the same 12-month period, which bears no relevance to when the books were written.

What’s more, is a book that was published in, say, 2015, but read widely in 2016, not to be considered for inclusion in the list of the best books of the year? To shift the focus from when a book is read to when a book is published seems extremely peculiar when it is the reading experience that is the arbiter, not the publishing process.

The lifetime of a book is not limited to the calendar year in which it was published. Some books will live on year after year. Some will die within weeks, or even days. Some will go into a coma, and be rediscovered years later as a forgotten classic. How meaningless is it, then, to judge – if at all a book can be judged – on or around December 15 (because who wants to work after Christmas)?

And so, if any of our readers are looking for one or more lists of the best books of 2016 from Scroll.in, they will be disappointed, for there will be no such list. It is an insult to every book to stuff it into a basket based on date of publication, and then to apply an arbitrary set of standards to create a hierarchy of quality.

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