Despite what the song says, this is not the most wonderful time of the year. It is a most unfortunate time of the year.
Please understand: I have nothing against holiday traditions, be they retail, religious or secular. I don't grit my teeth at the constant repetition of Christmas carols or harbor any dark, seething hatred of commercialism.
What, then, makes me dread the final few weeks of the year, every year? It's the infamous, diabolical, excruciating yet unavoidable tradition of selecting the year's best in the arts: books, movies, plays, TV shows, music, video games.
The basic rationale makes perfect sense, of course: No one can read or see or listen to or think about everything, thus we critics rush into the room and wave our arms over our heads and shout, "Stand back, everyone, we've got this covered! Listen up!" As a critic, I can attest to the voluptuous pleasure of watching as several faces in that metaphorical room turn my way, however briefly, waiting for my pronouncement — perhaps only to ridicule it, granted, but I'll take the attention any way I can get it.
Another part of me, though, fiercely and irrationally despises the "best" lists that appear at year's end. I confess that I do read many of them, and I sometimes enjoy arguing silently with them. What annoys and disappoints me, though, is the chilly retrospective nature of such lists. They drain all of the blood from the critic's job. They require a cold, methodical calculation of passions long past.
They're about yesterday's yearning. Compiling them is a bit like trying to remember why you used to be in love with so-and-so.
When I go into year-end list-making mode, many of the aspects of reading that make it such a special, even spiritual, adventure for me — the play of language, the splash of new facts, the forking path of a beautifully controlled and steadily unfolding narrative — disappear. I turn into a show-off. I want to make sure that you know how smart I am, based on the books I pick. I become a hedger, too.
And a waffler. I grow overly cautious. I find myself a lot more worried about balance and diversity than about naming the books that really moved me, instructed me, surprised me, infuriated me, shook me up and turned me around — even though, invariably, the books that do all of those things end up being naturally diverse and effortlessly inclusive.
Does that mean I think critics are lying about their picks? Of course not. It means that in the giant echo chamber of criticism in all genres, consensus is a warm and comfortable and safe place to be, and we all like being warm, comfortable and safe.
Best-of lists function as little engines of consensus. Every critic is looking around to make sure her selections — at least a few of them, anyway — are on other people's lists, too. Going it alone is scary and dangerous.
I am, to be sure, vitally interested in what my favorite literary critics think about the year's books. Yet if these critics are truly my favorites, then I already know. I've been reading them throughout the year — which means, in effect, that I've been reading right along with them, book by book. I should be able to write their "best of 2009" list myself, instead of waiting for them to do it.
It's the high-risk passion I miss in those year-end lists. The passion of the nervous, risky, itchy present. The fresh-off-the-presses, can't-wait-another-minute, you-gotta -know-this urgency of extolling the virtues of something that's still warm from your clutches.
But if you back me into a corner and threaten to confiscate my library card unless I come clean, I'll spill my guts. I'll tell you that the best book of 2009 is Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman, a collection of pungent, lyrical fictions about what might follow our short sojourns here on Earth. In one scenario, it turns out that only scoundrels go to heaven; there, they suffer alongside a deity grown stale and bitter. "Nothing continues to satisfy. Time drowns him. He envies man his brief twinkling of a life, and those He dislikes are condemned to suffer immortality with Him."
The best criticism has the shelf life of a snowflake — and fills the world with the scary, exhilarating news that when it comes to appreciating certain works of art, it's now or never.