Best of Book Lists: Where are the Women? And Where is the VARIETY?

One thing I’m constantly overwhelmed with as a librarian is the sheer number of books published every year — and how many of them I desperately want to read. And usually, that’s just limiting myself to keeping up-to-date on what’s being published for teens. So when various organizations for writers, readers, and the general public started publishing their “Best of 2011” lists in November, I was excited to “broaden my horizons” and see what was happening outside of YA lit in the past year.

Except, if you take these books as your only indication, not a lot WAS happening.

SheWrites features an important post about how underrepresented women are on these “best of” lists. This is especially discouraging because women’s brains are especially wired for language, which means we should excel as writers. And we do. But even in this field for which we are uniquely qualified, we’re still asked to “dance backwards” as Meg Waite Clayton so aptly puts it.

But it wasn’t just the absence of women that I found discouraging — it was the absence of VARIETY. I probably read about a dozen “top ten of 2011” lists, and was probably exposed to a grand total of 25 books. Were these REALLY the only 25 books that deserved accolades in the past year? I doubt it. Were they the books that got the most promotion and publicity from their publishers? Probably. Are they the books that are displayed most prominently in brick-and-mortor bookstores and cluttering up the ad space on Goodreads? I suspect so. In other words, the uniformity of the “best of” lists from so many different outlets let me down in two ways. One was that I felt like the reviewers were lazy — “Hey, everyone says this book is good, we’d better review it too;” or “Let’s read these books first because the publishers are really excited about them,” rather than a true examination of the potentially “hidden gems” amongst everything that was published in 2011. The second was that I felt like these “best of” lists only served to give the books with the most exposure … more exposure. While these lists should be an opportunity for the highest quality books to shine — even if they may not most marketable —  it felt instead like just another popularity contest.

So that’s why I’m interested in knowing what YOUR favorite books of 2011 were. No marketing machines, no one to impress, just your honest-to-goodness favorites. Please leave a comment to let me know, or make a post on your own blog if you have one. Below are my favorite 10 books from 2011 — although most of them were published prior to 2011 because, well, I’m about 4-20 years behind on my reading. 😉 In no particular order …

1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – This is Atwood’s follow-up to Oryx and Crake, which is enriched by reading the first story but can stand alone without it. Although some may call me blasphemous for saying so, I prefer this volume.

2. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert – This is Gilbert’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful Eat, Pray, Love. Although it didn’t receive as much attention, this is still a superior piece of non-fiction — part memoir, part examination of marriage, all fascinating.

3. The Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech – “Peoples are strange!” This is a charming, beautiful book about an angel who’s not sure what her purpose is. You’ll love the angel’s voice and her observations on life.

4. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – I end up reading many best-sellers even though I’m years behind the curve. I was particularly resistant to this one, but I loved Committed so much that I had to give it a try. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that is worth the hype.

5. Emotionally Engaged by Alison Moir-Smith – I was frustrated to find tons of books on planning a wedding, but very few that addressed the emotional upheaval that accompanies this big life transition. Alison Moir-Smith’s Emotionally Engaged finally fills that gap.

6. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived by Rob Bell – If you’re tired of “being religious” being equated with “being judgmental,” check out this book. I read it while at the bedside of my grandmother as we thought she was dying; but even outside that setting, this book has a message powerful enough to make me cry. (We won’t go into how easily I cry these days — trust me, it really is powerful. And short!)

7. Boy Toy by Barry Lyga – The title makes people laugh, but it’s hard to carry that laughter far into this book. A rare book that examines the sexual abuse of boys by women, and that does so in a heart-wrenching, sensitive, captivating way.

8. Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bigham and Laura Leedy Gansler – This was one of the books I was least excited to read this year. But I’m so glad that I did.

9. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – The sense of quiet isolation and unfulfilled longing in this subtle book really sticks with me.

10. I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusack – Markus Zusack is better known for The Book Thief, but this story is equally powerful — while being a whole lot less depressing.