Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Book of the Year


Our friends David and Bonnie and we have enjoyed a Christmas tradition of nearly twenty years now, one that has origins in the college friendship that David and I shared nearly forty years ago when we enjoyed discussing, comparing, and exchanging books.

D & B initiated the tradition by sending us, one Christmas, the “Best Book of the Year” for that year and inviting us to respond in similar fashion. We did and have been doing so ever since, right in time for the Christmas and New Year festivities.

Like the British constitution, the rules for BBOTY have not ever been recorded or even completely articulated. Over the years, each couple has struggled with new challenges to the concept. Over time, we have agreed that it is easier to understand what the BBOTY is not more easily than what it is. It is not, for example, the book one thinks the recipient will enjoy most. It is not necessarily the best-written book, or best plotted, or one with the best character development although all of these can help determine a book’s worthiness for consideration. It is certainly not the best reviewed or most popular book read. It is not restricted to fiction or non-fiction. It does not have to be recent, or old, or published in the given year. It simply has to be, upon consideration, the best book read by someone on the donating side. (A couple will of course have disagreements on BBOTY but each couple has worked out a way of agreeing on which book is chosen. It seems best to leave unexplored exactly how these decisions are reached.)

David has a PhD in biology and has worked in computer technology for international publishing. He is a scientist who reads broadly and is as likely to enjoy a work of fiction, biography, or history, as he is to enjoy books of a scientific nature. Bonnie is among many things a passionate fan of Jane Austen, movies, and gardening. I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction but in the course of a year will have read histories, biographies, essays, poetry, and even an occasional science book. I enjoy the young adult genre (while insisting that the marketing category is not exactly respectful to the books that it describes.) Patricia also reads and enjoys a range of genres and has an uncanny ability to identify astounding writing and surprising books.

One of the satisfactions of this exchange has been the expansion of my own reading tastes. In some years, the BBOTY is a book that I would not have chosen to read myself, sometimes a book I did not even know. My appreciation for books on anthropology, archaeology, genetics, and other science fields has been strengthened by some of D&B’s selections for us over the years. My own selection oft BBOTY has often surprised even me, a book that has caught me unaware, sneaking up on me as I read, or even months after I have read it, claiming its position as a contender demanding consideration. Sometimes the BBOTY that we receive has been for me, exactly the kind of book I enjoy but one that for whatever reason I had never picked up. Sometimes it has been a surprise or a puzzle. It says something about our friendship that BBOTY has never been a chore, a disappointment, or unremarkable. Every selection, every year has given pleasure and has provided content for conversation and reflection.

Over the years of raising families, working at careers, moving around and living overseas, we have spent some intervals, some too long, not seeing each other. At other times, we have visited with each other, enjoyed our families together, and have even travelled together, most enjoyably! (Traveling together successfully is a testament to the friendship and compatibility we share.) When we have been separated, BBOTY has provided a tangible bond and when we are together, we have discussed and shared books of all kinds.

When we are together, or talking on the phone, we find ourselves reluctant to say anything about a book that appears to be a candidate for BBOTY, keeping the process private until the year-end exchange. We have each been tempted to talk about a wonderful book that needs to be discussed, only to pull back because it might well be that year’s BBOTY. There has even been consideration of changing this tradition so that we are free to talk about any book we like when we get together. I don’t know how we will resolve this.

In recent years, after so many years of our own sharing with Gena the BBOTY selections, Gena has joined in the tradition herself and has added another dimension to the exchange.

Come October, my mind starts to anticipate the holiday exchange. When others are starting to purchase gifts or prepare decorations, I start to recall my year’s reading. If I haven’t been good about recording my reading, I may have forgotten what books I have read since last December. I can check my shelves, and bookwagon, but other books are out on loan or have been returned to the library or another lender. Then I start the internal conversation about what have been the best books read, and of these, which ones are serious contenders for the honor. This provides much enjoyment as I struggle with my own understanding of “best” and my own complicated appreciation for reading. By Thanksgiving, I have consulted with PYZ and depending on whether we have read and enjoyed a book together, or have competing ideas about “best”, we usually can refine the list to three or four books. By mid-December the books should be purchased and mailed.

This process is not always neat. The packages sent and received often have two or three volumes enclosed, some with interesting awards attached: “Most notable book of the Year”, “Best Fiction of the Year”, “Best Young Adult Novel of the Year.” Only one book, however, can be selected as BBOTY. As the old year makes way for the new, The Best Book of the Year provides a precious and tantalizing elixir distilled from an entire year of reading, just in time to toast a New Year of books!

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