As people on Twitter and elsewhere divulge their picks for best books of the decade, I’ve been thinking about my own reading over those ten years. And then this tweet came along today:
Those of you who know me will instantly realize this won’t be my problem. In fact, I began to wonder if any of my favorite reads for the decade would even have been published in the past ten years. So what does a data nerd do? Crunch the numbers.
How many of my favorite reads were from the past decade?
Out of the 820 books I have read in the past decade, 152 rated a score of nine or ten on my ten-point scale. On my scale, nine is “Absolutely Loved It” and ten is “All-Time Favorite”. Out of those 152, only 19 of them (1%) were published in past ten years. Whoops. So what were my favorite reads over the past ten years? Scroll to the end to see the results.
Thanks to Nancy Pearl, the good outweighs the bad
Out of the 820 books I’ve read in the past decade, 461 of them were rated a seven or higher. Not only has Nancy Pearl pointed me in the direction of some of my favorite authors (Barbara Pym, Ward Just) and other beloved books, but her Rule of 50 has kept me from hanging out too long with books I’m not enjoying. This is the rule that says if you aren’t enjoying a book by page 50 feel empowered to move on. And for every year you are over the age of 50 you can subtract one page from that total. Even prior to turning 50 this year I modified this rule and feel fine setting books aside long before page 50 if they aren’t speaking to me. (In a Twitter exchange in the past year or so, Pearl herself has admitted that she no longer strictly follows her Rule of 50, life being too short, etc.
Women Win the Decade
Out of the 820 books I’ve read, 425 of them (52%) were by female authors. That is as it should be in my world. When you look at the 461 books I rated seven or higher, that lead goes up to 54% in favor of the women.
Bens didn’t do so well, Benjamins did much better.
The two books by Bens on my list only scored a measly 2/10. Ben Dolnick for At the Bottom of Everything and Ben Marcus for The Flame Alphabet. On the other hand the two Benjamins on my list scored at the other end of the scale, each getting 8/10. Benjamin Tammuz for Minotaur and Benjamin Constant for Adolphe.
How many Erskines do you know?
I’ve never met an Erskine in real life, but in the past 10 years I’ve read books by two of them: the absolutely brilliant Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell and the kind of interesting, but ultimately tedious, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.
Leo Tolstoy and Lena Dunham are both Hogglestock Sevens
Just to give you an idea of how my rating scale works, both Lena Dunham and Leo Tolstoy rated 7/10 for their books Not That Kind of Girl and The Devil. My scale is purely about how much I enjoyed a book. It says nothing about literary merit. (No offense to Dunham, but I think she would admit she is no Tolstoy.)
My favorite reads actually published in the past decade
These are in order by author last name. You will notice that my choices are pretty orthodox. Not much in the way experimental or envelope pushing.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
American Romantic by Ward Just
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
My favorite reads of the decade
There is a lot that is missing from the following list of ten. First, I got rid of all my favorite authors (Sarton, Brookner, Atwood, Pym, Shute, etc.). Second, I didn’t include re-reads (I’m looking at you Howards End and Narcissus and Goldmund). Third, even though there were about 35 more books that have earned 10/10 in the past decade, I feel like these rise to the top because beyond enjoying them, they really delighted me or, in most cases, provided a real emotional connection. Fourth, I eliminated anything published in the past decade.
They are also all books that any fiction reader is likely to appreciate–might not be your cup of tea, but you won’t be upset having taken the time to read them. Again, in alpha order by author.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
Being Dead by Jim Crace
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing
Martin Eden by Jack London
Birds of America by Mary McCarthy
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams