New York Times 'Best Books' List Is Wildly Inconsistent -- Except For Its Self-Promoting, Liberal, Pro-Obama Tilt

Reuters media blogger Jack Shafer has no use for year-end "Best of the Year" lists. "Lined up, one-by-one, the best-of-year-in-review packages resemble the floats gliding down wide boulevards during a New Year’s Day parade: colorful, big, but pointless."

Shafer then picked on the New York Times best-of-books list for complete inconsistency (without commenting on its obviously liberal and pro-Obama tilt):


What you might find scintillating copy and hoist to the top of Page One I might give the spike. But inside the best-of-year-in-review genre, the judgments are beyond arbitrary. For instance, a book like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which got a mixed-to-negative review in the Times Book Review, merits a place in the section’s notable books, while Timothy Noah‘s The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, which won a cover rave in its pages, is judged non-notable.

I pick on The New York Times because if any outlet possesses the editorial muscle to produce a coherent and useful set of lists, the Times is it. But I suspect that’s not the goal at the Times or other list-producing venues. With few exceptions (and I can’t think of any!) best-of lists and year-in-review articles exist to fill the greatest number of pages with the least amount of effort.

Shafer ignored the other easy critique: how the newspapers tend to boost their own writers on the "Best Books" list. For 2012, at least four Times people were honored for their work:

AMERICAN TAPESTRY: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. By Rachel L. Swarns. A Times reporter’s deeply researched chronicle of several generations of Mrs. Obama’s family.

THE OBAMAS by Jodi Kantor. Michelle Obama sets the tone and tempo of the current White House, Kantor argues in this admiring account, full of colorful insider anecdotes.

ODDLY NORMAL: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality. By John Schwartz. A Times reporter’s deeply affecting account of his son’s coming out also reviews research on the experience of LGBT kids.

SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. By Timothy Egan. A deft portrait of the man who made memorable photographs of American Indians.

The Times also dished generous praise on its fellow journalists at the Washington Post: David Maraniss (for his Barack Obama: The Story), and Katherine Boo, and Anne Applebaum, and Rajiv Chandresekaran. Maraniss drew this gush: “This huge and absorbing new biography, full of previously unexplored detail, shows that Obama’s saga is more surprising and gripping than the version we’re familiar with.” Obama is endlessly fascinating to these people. 

In nonfiction, the Times also honored books like Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party by Geoffrey Kabaservice and Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman. 

In fiction, they stooped to loving the viciously anti-Christian novella The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin: "This beautiful work takes power from the surprises of its language and its almost shocking characterization of Mary, mother of Jesus."

New York Times John Schwartz Jack Shafer
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