An article by Bim Adewunmi in Wednesday’s Guardian,“‘Best of’ lists – what are they good for? Absolutely nothing,” takes issue with the British Film Insitute’s list of greatest films (see my post on this poll from yesterday). The article seems a tad tongue in cheek, so it may be a parody, but I don’t think so. If it’s serious, then Brown sees such polls as counterproductive for several reasons (I quote from the piece):
- They remove originality of thought. Have you ever tried to compile a list of the best books of all time? Have you automatically written down any or all of these usual suspects – Dickens, Nabokov, Austen, or Woolf – without even realising? We’ve all done it. These authors and their many works are undoubtedly excellent, but is that the only reason they came to mind? No, they’ve been “normed” into your life.
- They kill joy. We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, sure, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane? All my life, I’ve been told it is the best thing my eyes will ever see. I have Citizen Kane fatigue. This is what lists do – when the hype gets too much, all joy is extracted from the endeavour.
- They confirm your most depressing fear: you are desperately uncool. By definition, lists are exclusionary, separating the wheat from the perceived chaff. And while we all have views that might be considered a bit left field, we imagine those mark us out as cool mavericks, not social pariahs. But imagine the explicit confirmation that you’re wrong about everything – your favourite film, your most treasured book, your most beloved album. All wrong.
A few readers have echoed similar sentiments, but I am a strong advocate and follower of “best-of” lists. Yes, sometimes I’ll label my own posts as “best-of,” but it’s clear that these things are pretty subjective. What I mean is “Jerry thinks these are the best.” I think it’s unproductive to use such lists as a barometer of how “sophisticated” one is, or to feel inferior to those who make the lists. It’s better to think of them as learning tools, or guidelines for growth.
To me, the lists let me know about books or movies that might be worth watching or reading, and have been hugely valuable in that way. While taste is subjective, the taste of people who are regularly exposed to film and books, and think about them, tends to run along concurrent lines, and so it’s worth paying attention to their suggestions. Some of the lists I like include film ranking like the BFIs, the New York Times‘s annual list of the year’s best books, and the Modern Library‘s list of the 100 best novels, which is really good. Such lists can acquaint you with great literature that you’ve never even heard of. (Have you read, for instance, A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipal? If not, you’re missing a fantastic book).
I also like to look at the lists of contenders for Pulitzer Prizes and, especially, for the Booker Prize. It was the latter that turned me on to Pat Barker’s Ghost Road Trilogy, a fantastic series of books about the First World War, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Life of Pi by Yann Martel (yes, I know it has religious overtones, but I still loved it), and The Bone People by Keri Hulme. I enjoyed the hell out of those books, and wouldn’t have known about them save for the Booker nominations.
The notion that lists are useless is belied by an article by Mark Brown appearing on the same site on the same day. It recounts the reaction of Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound magazine, which publishes the BFI polls, to watching one of the top films:
Third in the critics’ list is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the 1953 Japanese drama. “I watched this film just three days ago and I couldn’t stop crying,” said James. “It tells you more about family life than any recent Hollywood film, I would suggest, even how we live today. It is very poignant and sad and heartbreaking and fabulous – it is a masterpiece.”
He’s right on the mark here; that film is fabulous. And how would a reader even know about it if there weren’t such lists?