What is your favorite National Book Critics Circle winner or finalist of all time? The first NBCC winners, honored in 1975 for books published in 1974, were E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, fiction), John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, poetry), R.W.B. Lewis for his biography of Edith Wharton, and Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, criticism). In 2014 the National Book Critics Circle prepares to celebrate nearly forty years of the best work selected by the critics themselves, and also to launch the new John Leonard award for first book. So we're looking back at the winners and finalists, all archived on our website, and we've asked our members and former honorees to pick a favorite. Here's the first of dozens of choices in our latest in six years of NBCC Reads surveys.
I have a thing against lists and favorites and “likes.” The ranking pastime has always struck me as too sports-like, too dismissive and competition-driven, born in exactly the kind of consumerist commodity-fetishism that only literature is still strong enough to save me from. I’m with Borges: censure and praise are sentimental acts that bear not the slightest resemblance to real criticism. The reading experiences I value most are the ones that shake me out of my easy aesthetic preferences and make the favorites game feel like a talent show in the Iroquois Theater just before the fire. Give me the not-yet likable, the unhousebroken, something that is going to throw my tastes in a tizzy and make my self-protecting Tops of the Pops slink away in shame.
But when I look at the 38 years of NBCC celebration, I can’t help thinking: gold mine! Year after the year, the process has turned up an incredible percentage of priceless, timeless works. Running down the list, I see my whole adult life as a reader, the years spent colliding with titles that proved how paltry my preferences were for embracing the full range of hazards available to the human soul—from the shocks of Doctorow and Ashbery and Fussell and Kingston and Bishop and Wilbur and Rosen, who saw me through high school and college, to the awe of Egan and Gleick and Gander and Caro and Millet and Spiotta and Johnson, who are seeing me into the first stages of an astonished and grateful old age. Pick a favorite, you say? You’ve got to be kidding me. Might as well pick a favorite kiss, a favorite moment of terror, a favorite day’s betrayal or evening’s forgiveness from out of a bewildered lifetime. Won’t do it; wouldn’t be prudent. But I might use this list, now that it has me evaluating my own reading needs, to read some of the books on it that I’ve always imagined I wouldn’t like.