Final Thoughts on my Bookish Olympus

Before I dug into my top one hundred ‘best’ novels, I wrote a post examining some overall themes in the list, particularly around issues of representation, genre, and recency bias. Today, before leaving the project, I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect on my top twelve, and what they say about me as a reader.

The biggest thing that jumps out to me is that all of the twelve are books that deal with really big themes, the kinds of things that give life meaning: Spirituality is a surprisingly common element, found explicitly in 7 of the 12. But themes of identity, hope, empathy, and resilience are found throughout all of them. And my excitement about these themes is probably why the list skews heavily towards literary fiction, even though I also read — and enjoy — a lot of YA and Romance. Pride and Prejudice kind of proves the rule because while it’s definitely Romance, it also deals with questions of class, responsibility, and the rift between perceptions and reality. I’d also say that while the books are all pretty ‘literary’, none of them are what you might call ‘style forward’ — They are all very well-written, but they aren’t self-consciously about the writing. There’s nothing whose primary value is in stylistic daring or poetic language. Those things are great, but for me, they have to serve a purpose. I’m not interested in literary daring for the sake of showing off what the author can do or get away with.

Another common theme in my top reads is the presence of either a swing-up or growth arc. Characters can — and often do — go through some really hard things (my top twelve talk about natural and human disasters, war-related trauma, spiritual, sexual, and physical abuse of children, racism, homophobia, and the prospect of economic ruin) , but it’s never just a laundry list of horrible experiences. Some may say this isn’t realistic — for some stories, the suffering and anguish may be the whole point. And fair enough, but those aren’t stories that leap out to me as being ‘the best’. I don’t find “life sucks and then you die” to be a particularly compelling philosophy!

Returning for a moment to the demographic questions I talked about for the top 100, it’s interesting how differently — and more diverse — it shakes out when just looking at the top twelve:

  • African American authors: 2
  • African (Nigerian) authors: 2
  • Authors of East Asian (Japanese) heritage: 2
  • Queer authors: 2
  • Women: 6, Men: 6

The top twelve also don’t show the same recency bias as the top 100 did, with only one book written in the past five years, and the present century (almost a quarter the way through already) accounting for just half of the list (vs. 78% of the overall list).

So I guess my main takeaway from this exercise is that I am a reader who reads diversely and who enjoys a great variety of books, but while I may not like long books, I do love big books — books that deal with the biggest issues of human experience, heart, and meaning.

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