This is the time of year when media outlets that review books come out with their best-of-the-year lists. I compared the top ten books of 2021 as determined by the editors at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Amazon.
What’s clear to me is there is very little consensus on what the top ten books are, which is not surprising for a number of reasons. First, there are so many great books published every year. Second, we all have different tastes. And third, editors and reviewers have agendas.
Here are my impressions:
- I read the New York Times Book Review on a regular basis throughout the year, and yet I hadn’t read, or even recognized, one of the their top ten titles of the year. Definitely caught me by surprise. Six of their top ten were nonfiction, four were fiction. Six of their top ten books were written by Black authors, and it’s heartening to see so much diversity in the NYT list, but I say with hesitancy and perhaps bias that I think the pendulum has swung too far now in the other direction.
- No single book appeared on all four top ten lists. Only three books appeared on more than one list. “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” by Patrick Radden Keefe (The Washington Post and Amazon); “Klara and the Sun,” by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Washington Post and Amazon); and “The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois,” a novel by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (The New York Times and The Washington Post).
- The Wall Street Journal listed seven nonfiction books and three fiction books in their top ten. I’ve read none of them, nor do I read the WSJ, but at least I’ve heard of the novel “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” by Joshua Cohen. At 20 words, this isn’t even the longest title on the WSJ list. That honor belongs to Rebecca Donner’s “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler.” With expository, detailed titles like these, who even needs to read the book?
- Amazon included two nonfiction and eight fiction titles on their list, including two that are on my own list: “Klara and the Sun,” and Maggie Shipstead’s engrossing novel about a woman aviator, “Great Circle.”
Here are my top three of the year, in no particular order:
“Klara and the Sun” (Kazuo Ishiguro). Narrated by the artificial friend purchased to be the companion of a young girl. Not for everyone, but Ishiguro’s voice is one of the most distinctive in fiction and he’s one of my favorite authors. Here’s my review of “Klara and the Sun.”
“Great Circle” (Maggie Shipstead). Epic historical novel about a woman aviator that manages to pull off the magic trick of being both literary and highly entertaining. Here’s my review of “Great Circle.”
“Bewilderment” (Richard Powers). It’s hard to match the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Overstory,” but this novel about an astrobiologist and his neurodivergent son is both philosophical and compelling. Here’s my review of “Bewilderment.”
Bonus Best Book
Many of us have heard of and read William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” that contains the ultimate moral dilemma, but I hadn’t come across his “A Tidewater Morning” (1995) until this year. Three longish stories, beautifully told, mesmerizing. Here’s my review of “A Tidwater Morning.”