If you have them, your tan lines are starting to solidify. Your primary fruit intake? The quarter-moon of ragged lime you ram into your Corona. Shark Week is over. Your body lets you know it’s tired of the heat when dreams of autumn begin loitering at the edges of your sleep. Summer is coming to an end. But summer has only truly ended when websites and magazines stop publishing their summer reading lists.
Nothing is more constant during summer than reading lists. These literary ten commandments are rarely timid, with critics and curators inviting you to partake of their garbage casserole of praise—promising enjoyment, increased empathetic abilities, readerly enrichment, and topical conversation on something new. It’s like Iron Chef, or even better yet, some sort of bodybuilding contest. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite & thus be forced onto people as [Joseph] Conrad has.” The current literary world: a labyrinthine stage, filled to the bursting with flexed, oiled, and elitist muscle.
But these muscles flex for a purpose, a noble cause, right? Depressing statistics about American book reading are evidence of wisdom’s gradual apocalypse, a sluggish decline and ADD self-lobotomization wrought by Netflix, email, the latest Call of Duty, maybe even the failure to floss. Lists, syringes filled with the life-giving serum of the micro-orthodoxies of taste, let the people know, guiding them toward the wise and the fun and the cultured. How, then, can the people speak of what they have not read? How can they read that which they have not heard? How can they hear without someone preaching to them?
The world does not need another religious document dripping with inky superlatives, alliteration, and metaphors. Buzzfeed has taught us, often, lists are nothing more than chum in the cultural waters. They are buckets of blood, providing impressions of learning and life, but not the thing itself. In an interview with Der Spiegel about his Louvre exhibition on lists, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” But this is an emphasis from the wrong end, a philosopher practiced at giving the same answer to different questions. For sharks, the blood indicates life, something living or almost living to be consumed. Humans are sharks, with click bait lists drawing us near with the promise of life. In return, we provide clicks.
“We like lists because we don’t want to die.” ~ Umberto Eco
Like chum, lists, in their own way, are liars. Most literary lists have an anatomy to them, a consistent pattern of promotion and taste—an impression of life. The repetitious anatomy of these lists is comfortably predictable from year to year, institution to institution (NYT, TED, NPR, Buzzfeed, etc.). So here is a dissection of the anatomy of curatorial intention that seems to animate so many of the recommended summer and end-of-year lists—to invert Wordsworth’s classic dictum, we dissect in order to murder the desire to click.
- A character discovers their sexuality. “Coming-of-age” occurs no less than five times in the blurbs for the book.
- This book was thick, hence it’s “Dickensian” and “ground-breaking.”
- This book is thin. This means it’s “haunting” because we [the list curators] don’t even know where that plot could have gone.
- On a road trip, a troubled past follows the female protagonist like a bloodhound. Can’t we relate?
- We agree with this author’s political views so that means his/her fiction book is “timely” and “compelling.”
- Something by that international author that no one in his/her home country knows of, but we do. An “authentic” read.
- Small desires, mistaken for large ones, remain unfulfilled. Suburbia is hell.
- A bonfire of pathos, this tale of acerbic love, sardonic betrayal, and lively death—ultimately, a hopeful work.
- NY author. Do not let the overuse of the verb “woven” in the review fool you, the author is not a seamstress.
- The author, born in Georgia, lived in NY, and now lives in Georgia again. We included it, because it is commendable as a consciously provincial work.
- A romance. But don’t let the sitcomish premise fool you; this book is Shakespearian in its profundity.
- This book got censored somewhere. Was it in China? Or was it Iran? Yeah, we think it was China. If it got censored it deserves inclusion.
- The author assures us this isn’t autobiographical. Look, see, he/she has assured us of this in at least two interviews. Fake fiction at its finest.
- My God—it’s full of words! Words we have read.
- That book about those guys in World War II. A meditation on the memory of men who smoke while doing manly things.
- Event, event description, date of event. Details forthcoming.
- A book so grippingly boring that you will mistake boredom for increasing intelligence.
- A surprising and unlikely friendship between these two historical figures.
- A riveting genealogy of a mundane object, like a sofa, cubical, or salt. We say “absorbing” and “unearthing” so many times in the review, you will think it’s about an archeological dig for a roll of Bounty paper towels.
- A reconsideration of a life that has been considered many times. We called this biography “fresh.”
- Young author essay collection. Since they are young we called this “prodigiously provocative.”
- Contrarian words from a tenured professor.
- 50% gossip, 50% ghostwriter, 100% behind the scenes.
- The story of this horse. People love horses. Roughly centered on horses.
- A book—a voluminous single volume—about cutting-edge Neurobioelectrosurgery and what it means for humanity. The editor couldn’t finish this, but, science.
- An oddity of history narrated pensively. Title typically involves: “How the [Blank] behind the [Blank] became a/an [Blank].”
- Minimalist cover, minimalist argument.
- From a few anecdotes this public intellectual creates theory about everything—Malcolm Gladwellish or David Brooks-esque.
- Anxiety memoir with happy ending. Writer drinks vodka.
- Anxiety memoir with sad ending. Writer drinks bourbon. We called it “sobering.”
This isn’t an argument against lists in general, or against public expressions of readerly love and pleasure, rather it’s an argument against using lists to express that love and pleasure. There are books and authors I love, that if asked about at a party I would gush and praise, eventually forcing you to make eyes at your significant other—like a shot from a flare gun of a shipwrecked crew—to ask for a rescue. But salvation takes many forms, and knowing what to steer clear of is its own form of rescue. Reader, rescue yourself—don’t click on the lists.
 The genealogies in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are examples of lists that are full of life.