BEST OF 2014?: LOSING TRACK…

Around New Year’s Day seems the best time to take a look at the list of the volumes I have read in the previous 365 days and see what I have been up to. I keep, as I have noted here several times already, a list of all I read, as a very necessary memory aid. My habit of, in addition, rating the volumes throws this time a very unexpected, odd, selection of top readings for 2014. In chronological order, as I read them along this now past year:

1.Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003), fantasy.
2.Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (1883), memoirs.
3.Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), autobiography.
4.Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914), autobiography.
5.Roberto Saviano, CeroCeroCero (2014), journalistic essay.
6.Richard Morgan, Broken Angels (2003), SF.
7.Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2000), literary fiction.
8.Isaías Lafuente, Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2003), journalistic essay.
9.Geraldine Scanlon, La polémica feminista en la España contemporánea 1868-1974 (1976), academic essay.
10.Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2004), academic essay.
11.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (2005-2010), juvenile dystopian fiction.

My first surprise is that even though 50% of my readings this year were novels, as usual, I have been impressed by very few and I’m not sure I would recommend them: Eugenides’ Middlesex, a re-reading, is excellent but Bujold’s Paladin of Souls and Morgan’s Broken Angels are, rather, signs of very personal preferences which are hard to pass on. What is Suzanne Collins’ trilogy doing here at this peculiar place 11, you may wonder? Well, her books upset me profoundly to the point of giving me intense nightmares; I know this is not a criteria to call her a ‘good writer’ and I rather think she’s a disturbed and disturbing author–yet, I have found myself caught in Katniss’ story with an intensity missing from all the other many novels I have read in 2014. The memoirs, autobiographies and essays I would not hesitate to recommend, as you can see by my having written about most of them here. I do not hesitate, either, to name Saviano’s CeroCeroCero, a bold, desperate dissection of the cocaine business, as the best volume that has passed through my hands recently.

It is also the only volume in the list published in 2014, together with Xavi Aldana’s study, which leads me to the second point today: I’ve completely lost track. I have been checking the ‘best of 2014’ lists published by newspapers like El País or The Guardian, and also the selections voted by members of GoodReads. Since I do not check these regularly for lack of time there was there plenty of authors and titles I didn’t know. Fair enough. What threw me off was that quite often they were said to be ‘world famous’ or a ‘smashing hit’. Can I be really this disconnected? And who’s the one so well connected with the media so as to keep pace with all that is new?

I shared these worries with a group of friends over coffee and we came to the conclusion that the ignorance I am acknowledging here is habitual. From what I gather, readers follow a thread of their own choice, whether this is young adult or post-colonial fiction, without excessively caring about the ceaseless flow of novelties. If you look at my list, I’m doing that: follow a few threads that interest me and see where they will lead–no need to limit myself to the immediate present. A friend noted not only that so much is published every year that it is impossible to keep up but also that reliable indicators of quality, like, say, the Man Booker Prize, have lost a great deal of their influence and reliability: the books highlighted by awards don’t last for as long as they used to last, she said. Indeed, it is harder and harder for me to recall the names of new writers hailed with exorbitant claims about their quality as they, simply, don’t seem to be around with the same force as their 1980s predecessors. A matter of numbers perhaps?

The same friend, currently reading African fiction in English, also told me that there is much of quality to be found in that area of the world–this was in answer to my pointing out that, judging by GoodReads, the middlebrow has replaced for good the literary in the top volumes selected by readers (or the literary writers, if any are left, are failing to connect with the public, I don’t know). I have no reasons to doubt that Africa is producing very fine novels, but how could I know unless she tells me?

I am even lost in my own preferred SF corner, seemingly finding by accident rather than good sense what is worth reading. Here is an example. My friend is co-organizing a conference on the Literature of the Indian Ocean and I proposed to contribute something about African SF. I googled my way into this unknown field yesterday, and here we go: I should have known that it is fast-progressing, spear-headed by white South-African author Lauren Beaukes who is, guess what?, very popular and the recipient of I don’t know how many awards… Yet, I didn’t know she existed at all until yesterday.

As long as readers come across good writers it is really irrelevant whether we keep up with the novelties or not, though obviously it is relevant for the publishing industry. I had no idea when 2014 started that I would be so pleased by books written one hundred or even almost two hundreds years ago, but here they are to last in my memory. We’ll see who my top ten are at the end of the following 365 days.

Happy New Year! May it brings you plenty of good books.

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