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By John Wilson


The Top Ten Books of 2003

Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music.

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This week—the third installment in our four-part roundup—we come to the Top Ten Books of 2003. (In fact, as sometimes happens, "the Top Ten" includes 11 titles.) These are not necessarily the best books of the year. The two newspapers we get at home, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, published their lists of "best books" on the same day, December 7. By then, my list was already made, barring any late discoveries or last-minute second thoughts (which didn't come about this year, except in the case of The Worst Book of the Year, about which more below). None of the nine titles selected by the Times appears on my list, nor do any of the dozen titles on the Tribune's list. Only one book—Edward Jones' novel The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)—appears on both of their lists. So: three lists, a total of 32 titles, and that is the only instance of agreement. I haven't read—really read—a single one of the Times' "best books" for this year, and I've read only two of the Tribune's dozen. I've nosed around a bit in several other titles from the two lists but wasn't prompted to settle down for the long haul.

What do these discontinuities suggest? First, of course, that there are simply too many books for any one editor or team of editors to keep track of. (On this theme, see Jody Bottum's wonderful piece in the December 8 issue of The Weekly Standard.) Anyone who doubts this need only visit my office. Second, as we've already noted, that there's an irreducible element of taste in our response to books, which is one of the great glories of reading. And finally, that the choices are informed by different hierarchies of value.

It's striking, for example, that four of the 12 titles on the Tribune's list have as their primary subject the "American dilemma" of race—race in black-white terms. Two of the remaining titles—one fiction, one nonfiction—deal with genocide, while another focuses on the Vietnam War and another on the death penalty. Big Issues, move to the head of the line.

All of which adds up to the conclusion that such lists—including this one—shouldn't pretend to be definitive. Here are the books that come to mind most readily when I think back over the year. In the background, there should be Christmas music: at our house, Burl Ives and Bach, early American and Celtic miscellanies, medieval songs performed by Anonymous Four and Sequentia and the Tallis Scholars, Swedish church music. And also music that has no Christmas label and yet seems to fit the season: Gillian Welch, for instance, and the CD of Latin music (a different kind of Latin, definitely not medieval) which our daughter Katy brought home for her Christmas break from the Covenant Bible College in Ecuador.

The list is alphabetical by title.

  1. The Afterlife, by Penelope Fitzgerald (Counterpoint), edited by Terence Dooley with Christopher Carduff and Mandy Kirkby. The British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, was 60 years old when she published her first novel in 1977. She wrote nine altogether, as well as a collection of stories and three biographies. This posthumous collection gathers her essays about writers and writing. Like her fiction, it offers a distinctive voice: reticent yet missing nothing, sympathetic to the small and the weak yet very tough-minded, informed by a Christian faith that is rarely explicitly expressed.
  2. The Complete Far Side, 1980-1994, by Gary Larson (Andrews McMeel). Two vols. The monumental scale of this edition seems incongruous with Larson's genius, which I associate with newspapers and photocopies and one-a-day calendar pages taped to office doors and affixed with magnets to refrigerators, but it is good to have the master's work so assembled. What struck me most, especially going through the first volume, was the way these cartoons brought back the feel of their time.
  3. The Curse of the Raven Mocker, by Marly Youmans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you haven't heard about this novel, that may be because it was published as a Young Adult book. Then again, it's a novel that eludes categories right and left. It's a fantasy—but nothing like most books in that genre. It draws a lot on Cherokee lore, but it isn't a "Native American" book. It is a portrait of the artist as a girl about to become a woman, and a story of the Spirit (and of spiritual warfare). As I have learned since first getting acquainted with her work a year and a half ago, Youmans (pronounced like "yeoman" with an "s" added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. She writes like an angel—an angel who has learned what it is to be human. I hope you too will discover Youmanland.
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