Books of the Year

How we picked them. Why we fell in love.


Dwight GarnerLaura Miller
December 10, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

with 50,000 new titles published annually, it's no wonder readers love
top 10 lists. As critics -- people who spent the whole year damming the
tidal wave of review copies and publicity materials, informing our
discerning readers about just a carefully chosen trickle -- this ought to
be our finest hour. Instead, as soon as we decided to choose our own 10
favorite books, we immediately began to fret about the ones we'd have to
leave out.

Nevertheless, we're delighted with the list we finally produced
after weeks of bleary-eyed reading, endless cups of coffee and quite a
few frantic, transcontinental e-mails ("Argh! I wanted to write this one
off, but it's just too good. Can't we choose 20?"). These are the books
we'd wholeheartedly recommend to our friends, books we'd clear our social
calendar to finish, books we returned to eagerly even when we could
barely focus our eyes on a page. They remind us of why we fell in love
with reading and why we keep at it in a world that's simultaneously
cluttered with mediocre books and increasingly indifferent to the written
word.

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This, ultimately, was our criterion -- despite the fact that, like
most list-makers and award-givers, we felt vague, ambient pressures to
make "representative" choices and tip our hats to titles that seemed
eminently worthy, if not much fun. As online journalists, we're just a
click away from our readers' feedback, a fact which gave us even more impetus to choose what we truly loved, rather than to cover our butts
ideologically. Fortunately, when it comes to fiction, Dwight's favorites
this year were stories with a more intimate, domestic focus -- "The
Family Markowitz" and "The Giant's House" -- while Laura hankered after
novels that tackle historical and social themes, like "The Moor's Last Sigh"
and "Infinite Jest." So our list is nicely balanced, with David
Markson's exuberantly experimental "Reader's Block" rounding it out.

As for nonfiction, we could have easily selected five memoirs, the form
is so prevalent and the quality so fine these days (that's the only
pronounced literary trend we've observed, by the way). Mary Gordon's "The Shadow Man," Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Ellroy's "My Dark Places" testify that the puzzle of individual history and identity remains a compelling theme. The two non-memoirs we chose --
Paul Hendrickson's "The Living and the Dead" and Melissa Fay Greene's
"The Temple Bombing" -- are vivid examples of how a gifted writer can
find meaning in the chaos of daily experience and discover humanity in
history's dry facts. In their different, eloquent ways, they showed us the personal dimensions of public
events.

We're still, however, thinking about the books we couldn't include,
ones that we nevertheless want to urge on you as provocative, thrilling,
enlightening, amusing and otherwise well worth your time.

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We decided to limit the final 10 to books that hung together as a
unified whole, eliminating collections like Nicholson Baker's droll book
of essays, "The Size of Thoughts," and "Burning Your Boats," a selection
of the late Angela Carter's perverse, jewellike stories.

After reading Stephen Jay Gould's "Full House," we will never have a clear conscience about making judgments based on statistics -- even if that middle
section on batting averages was tough going at times. Suzanne Berger's
memoir of disability, "The Horizontal Woman," made us contemplate the
unthinkable. Stephen Ambrose's history of the Lewis and Clark expedition,
"Undaunted Courage," is history made both gripping and immediate, and
kept us up late turning pages. Andrew O'Hagan's essay on disappearing
people, "The Missing," and D.J. Waldie's "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir"
gave us chills. Mark Singer's "Citizen K" made us regard our own
profession with a jaundiced eye. Richard Ellis' "Deep Atlantic" took us
to a strange, fascinating environment we'll never visit in real life. And
John Thorne's vigorous memoir/cookbook "Serious Pig: An American Cook in
Search of His Roots" made us hungry to read everything this Maine writer
has ever put to paper.

To avoid the appearance of nepotism, we ruefully eliminated
excellent books by our friends: Jim Paul's remarkable fictional
meditation on the persistent irrationality of human thought, "Medieval in
LA," and Jonathan Lethem's disturbing, hallucinatory short story
collection, "The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye."

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We savored some "big" books by established novelists -- John
Updike's "The Beauty of the Lillies," A.S. Byatt's "Babel Tower," John
Edgar Wideman's "The Cattle Killing," Paul Theroux's "My Other Life,"
Jamaica Kincaid's "Autobiography of My Mother," Ron Hansen's "Atticus" --
even if other titles wound up shouldering them off the list. Novels and
collections like Karen Joy Fowler's "The Sweetheart Season," George
Saunders' "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and Victor Pelevin's "Omen Ra"
gave us reason to anticipate that these less-well-known writers will soon
become familiar names.

Despite the many times we've complained about the critic's lot -- plowing through piles of bad, boring and just plain mediocre new books -- this project reminded us of just how many terrific books were published in 1996. In fact, our first New Year's resolution is to get an early start on picking next year's winners.

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Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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