In 2004, the Book Review, which had previously offered a selection of the year’s Notable Books and Best Books, began limiting the number of Notables to 100 and the Best Books to 10. Choosing 100 is hard enough. Whittling that number to 10 is even harder, though the process is always interesting. And as is so often the case with lists, the numbers contain subsets that are interesting in themselves, suggesting coincidences, trends and patterns within.
This year marks the eighth year the Book Review has whittled down the 10 Best Books of the year from its traditional list of the 100 Notable Books. Each year, within the smaller field lies another interesting set of numbers, and in looking at the 80 winners of the last eight years, other coincidences, trends and patterns emerge.
Todd St. John
The most notable ministatistic this year is that four of the five best works of fiction are first novels — the first time the Book Review has named more than two debuts among its 10 best. The nonfiction list is more diverse: one work of history, one memoir, one biography, one collection of essays and a single work of genre-defying nonfiction (Daniel Kahneman’s comprehensive look at how we think — try coming up with a category for that).
While we ponder that one, here are some other noteworthy figures from the past eight years’ 10 Best lists, in no particular numeric order:
The only novelist to have won more than once is Roberto Bolaño: in 2007 for “The Savage Detectives” and in 2008 for “2666,” both of them posthumous wins for the Chilean author.
Of the 41 winning novels (six novels rather than five were selected in 2004), very nearly half — 19 — were written by women. Not that we’re counting. But so long as we are, a comparatively smaller share of the nonfiction winners — 12½ — were written by women. The half is for “De Kooning: An American Master,” which was written by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
BOOKS from www.bubok.co.uk
Titles of Distinction
The Times’s book critics pick their top books of the year.
Michiko Kakutani’s List
Janet Maslin’s List
Dwight Garner’s List
Including this year’s four first-time novelists, there have been a total of nine first-novel winners. The only other year in which more than one first novel won was 2007, when “Man Gone Down” by Michael Thomas and “Then We Came to the End” by Joshua Ferris were named.
Of the 41 winning novels, five have been novels in translation. In 2007, two winners had appeared first in other languages: “Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson (translated from the original Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and by the author) and “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolaño (translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer). In 2006, 2009 and this year, the winners were all published first in English.
Among the 39 nonfiction winners, 14 have been biography or memoir, with the former just edging out the latter, eight to six. This does not include “The Emperor of all Maladies,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “biography” of cancer, nor does it include portraits of a generation and the like.
A Time of War
Given that the United States has been at war with at least one country at any given moment during the last eight years, it’s not surprising that many of the winners have dealt with the subject of war, contemporary or historical. Of the 80 winners, 13 were predominantly or explicitly about war, three of them novels. With some overlap and some outliers, 12 books similarly dealt with 9/11 or its aftermath.