Books of the Year: How do we determine the best?

I decided earlier this month that I wanted to write about the “Best of 2014” book lists that places like Amazon, Entertainment Weekly and, well, virtually everyone else, put out to end the year.

I began compiling a list of the lists and looking at them. After some careful reading, I had no idea how to write this post. There wasn’t a common way that was used to determine “best” by these different organizations. While some books overlapped, they were listed for different reasons.

Then, I realized that was the point. Determining “the best” books of a year is an entirely subjective thing. Unless you’re basing the list solely on copies sold/downloaded/borrows from libraries, there is no objective way to define the best books.(50 Shades of Grey sold a lot of copies, but would anyone consider that a literary masterpiece? The writing leaves something to be desired.) Similarly, there’s no way to determine which books were the worst either.

It’s all a matter of taste. Usually the taste of the person writing the list, perhaps with some input from coworkers. It’s not inconceivable either that whichever list comes out first is used by compilers of other lists to determine what is best.

Some of the overlapping books of 2014 include Station Eleven, Everything I Never Told You and Redeployment. I haven’t read any of those, so I cannot judge their worthiness of being on the lists.

USA Today included The Silkworm, the latest installment from Robert Galbraith JK Rowling in her mystery series. I read that and enjoyed it. Would I call it one of the best books of the year? Probably not.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is also on USA Today’s list. In my opinion, the spot is deserved.

To me, a “best book of the year” should be a title given to a book that captivates readers and performs well on the bestseller lists. A book that is a critical darling but doesn’t sell doesn’t have universal appeal, a quality that, in my opinion, is important for a book to be THE BEST.

A book like Big Little Lies is one of those books. It has commercial appeal and flies off shelves upon its release, but it also captivates the reader with thoughtful and deliberate prose.

The Silkworm has the commercial appeal ( I dare you to not consider JK Rowling commercially appealing). The plot was intriguing and the mystery well-thought out. The prose was a little sloppy at times, however, almost rushed.

What is interesting to me is EW’s list of the five worst books of the year. I’m currently reading The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, which is featured on the list.

Quebert was an international bestseller and I picked it as a recommended book to me, I believe on Goodreads. EW’s explanation for why it’s one of the worst of the year: it fell flat in the US debut.

It fell flat? It didn’t sell enough copies to meet expectations, so it must automatically be one of the worst books of the year?

To me, that doesn’t seem quite fair to the book. Nearly 3/4 of the way through, I am thrilled by the lyrical prose of Joel Dicker, the author of Quebert. The story is interesting and twists and turns in just the right ways so the reader never becomes bored.

Dicker’s book is one that movies could be made out of. (I’ll have more details once I finish it and post a Recent Reads.)

Poor publicity leading up to the release and poor sales do not a terrible book make. I feel jipped by Entertainment Weekly. I want more of an explanation as to why this book was so awful in the mind of the person who compiled the list.

In the meantime, while I wait for reasoning I will never hear, I will refrain from choosing the best books of my year. At least for now.

What do you think are the best books of 2014? Let me know by commenting!

In the meantime, check out some of the best book lists I consulted before writing this post:

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