Saturday, September 11, 2010

You're The Top

You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top! 

Cole Porter, "You're The Top"

Janet W. sent me her Top 100 Romance Novels list the other day.  She'd prepared it as part of AAR's Top 100 survey from 2004.   I gather there are 29 novels that appear on both AAR's list and Janet's.

I did a breakdown of Janet's list by author: 15 titles by Mary Balogh, 14 Georgette Heyers, 10 Jo Beverleys, two authors with 4 and two with 3 titles respectively, 8 with two titles, and the rest appear on the list only once.  AAR's #1 book, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, doesn't make Janet's list and her #1, Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child, doesn't make their list.

None of which is surprising.  With thousands of romance novels published every year, and different readers liking different things, I would hardly expect anyone's Top 100 list to match up with anyone's else's -- or even with their own from years before.

I've never attempted to write out a top 100 list.  For one thing, what precisely would I be using as the criteria?  How much I loved a book?  How good I thought the book was?  How likely I was to reread it?  How tightly I would be gripping it when the men in white jackets came to take me away?  And what do I do with the books I have yet to read?  Assume they won't make the list, or leave some spots blank for the "player to be named later"?  As I pointed out to Janet, it's like hugging fog.

I understand better the lists of the top 100 movies ever made (AFI's being perhaps the most famous) because there's some distance between the moviegoer and the movie; I might not rank Citizen Kane as the best movie ever, but I can appreciate why it has that spot.  When I first read Lord of Scoundrels, on the other hand, I didn't like it enough even to keep, let alone love.  (That was before I knew it was famous.  I still don't love it, but I keep it because I adore so many other of Chase's books.)  I get it that other readers adore it, but I can't see why it was the best of the bunch in 2004.

All we can do to generate a Top 100 list is pool a bunch of people's relatively arbitrary lists.  That's because a book is like a piece of clothing: it either fits and flatters us, feels comfortable and does its job, or it doesn't.  And if a piece of clothing doesn't fit, it hardly matters if it's the most sumptuous garment ever made.  It just doesn't fit.

My hypothetical Top 100 list would list the books that fit me best as well as the ones whose fit was just okay but I can tell how masterful the work is.  Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, for example:  I love its predecessor, To Love and To Cherish far more, but I can see why TH&TH is nearly always ranked higher.  It is the better book; TL&TC fits me better, that's all.

What's so wonderful about books is that we have a vocabulary to discuss them.  By contrast, I have next to nothing to say about music.  I know what I like, but I barely know why I like it -- and when I read a music review, I can't begin to tell if I would like what the reviewer liked.

So Janet W. and I can (and do!) debate books with passion and depth.  I don't suppose we've convinced each other yet of anything beyond our own fervor.  But I know a book better after I've discussed it with another reader.  That may be the appeal of the Top 100 lists; they force us to think about books in more concrete terms -- weighing them against each other.

In the end, though, we're each entitled to love the books we love for our own reasons.  And if those reasons provide the reader with sufficient basis to rank them, that's okay too.  After all, I wouldn't necessarily rate the Coliseum above, say, the Acropolis.


  1. I feel the same way. Since the contrary gene in my DNA is becoming more prominent each day, I seem to like things that others don't, and end up puzzled by the fuss made over books I couldn't even finish.

    I *want* others to feel the same way I do, but it doesn't diminish my enjoyment when they don't. I'm just thrilled there are so many books still to discover and savor, along with all the keepers that I've got if I ever run out of choices.

    Great post. :) I'm still chuckling about you and Janet not convincing each other of anything other than your own fervor. LOL

  2. Janet here: Great line -- full of fervor and fury and convincing no one. But let me be clear: I was giddy in love w/all things Rom*Land when I created this list ... and I had just discovered the wonders of the All About Romance Desert Island Keepers list ... which I suppose is pretty obvious when you see the many B authors! Next time I do it ... and I will, this fall actually, when AAR does its call out again, maybe I'll start from the "Zed" portion of my keeper shelves.

    I disagree that a book should make its way on to such a list because of its merits (and of course I'm not disagreeing that it might have merit). My goal was to pick 100 books I loved to read and re-read and rank them. It's just a snapshot in time from this book lover (and really, it's a bit shocking to have anything from 2004 examined that closely -- I read the clothes analogy and I'm a great one for holding onto to clothes forever but six years back?). This fall I'll share my old and new list with anyone who's interested and no one will be more curious than me to see how my tastes have changed -- or not.

  3. I actually don't have an answer for this one -- is the #1 book on a list a statement that the list-maker considers that the best book, or merely her favorite? I'd guess the latter, but each list-maker may have her own reasoning & system, so each list is opaque to some extent.

    Interestingly, after I'd read this post out loud to my husband (a form of proofreading), he said, "Oh, well, if a Top 100 is too hard, just do a Top 10." I was sitting in front of several hundred books at the time, so he has to know I could name 100 books that I love without too much difficulty. It's not the length of the list that's the problem, it's the creation of any list at all I struggle with.

    Janet, I would love to see your 2010 Top 100 list!

  4. I'm actually reading my way through AAR's most recent top 100 list and have come across several books that I didn't care for and even a few that I couldn't finish at all.

    BTW...I agree with you about Lord of Scoundrels. I adore Loretta Chase, but I just don't care for this book.

    I think that lists are so personal but I like to see what other people think is great and I've found it to be a really great way to discover some new authors. For example, I had always avoided Mary Balogh because I thought she was going to be too traditional for me, but I've ended up really liking several of the books on the list!

    Reading and eventually drafting my own list is a fun project, but I know that my list will not be the same as someone else's because I choose my favorites based on personal preference and what I consider the "best" book.


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