[Books of the Year

[How we picked them]


The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman
Reader's Block by David Markson
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


My Dark Places by James Ellroy
The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon
The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene
The Living and the Dead by Paul Hendrickson
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Why we fell in love

Illustrations by Calef Brown

with 50,000 new titles published annually, it's no wonder readers love top 10 lists. As critics -- people who spent the whole year damming the tidal wave of review copies and publicity materials, informing our discerning readers about just a carefully chosen trickle -- this ought to be our finest hour. Instead, as soon as we decided to choose our own 10 favorite books, we immediately began to fret about the ones we'd have to leave out.

Nevertheless, we're delighted with the list we finally produced after weeks of bleary-eyed reading, endless cups of coffee and quite a few frantic, transcontinental e-mails ("Argh! I wanted to write this one off, but it's just too good. Can't we choose 20?"). These are the books we'd wholeheartedly recommend to our friends, books we'd clear our social calendar to finish, books we returned to eagerly even when we could barely focus our eyes on a page. They remind us of why we fell in love with reading and why we keep at it in a world that's simultaneously cluttered with mediocre books and increasingly indifferent to the written word.

This, ultimately, was our criterion -- despite the fact that, like most list-makers and award-givers, we felt vague, ambient pressures to make "representative" choices and tip our hats to titles that seemed eminently worthy, if not much fun. As online journalists, we're just a click away from our readers' feedback, a fact which gave us even more impetus to choose what we truly loved, rather than to cover our butts ideologically. Fortunately, when it comes to fiction, Dwight's favorites this year were stories with a more intimate, domestic focus -- "The Family Markowitz" and "The Giant's House" -- while Laura hankered after novels that tackle historical and social themes, like "The Moor's Last Sigh" and "Infinite Jest." So our list is nicely balanced, with David Markson's exuberantly experimental "Reader's Block" rounding it out.

As for nonfiction, we could have easily selected five memoirs, the form is so prevalent and the quality so fine these days (that's the only pronounced literary trend we've observed, by the way). Mary Gordon's "The Shadow Man," Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and James Ellroy's "My Dark Places" testify that the puzzle of individual history and identity remains a compelling theme. The two non-memoirs we chose -- Paul Hendrickson's "The Living and the Dead" and Melissa Fay Greene's "The Temple Bombing" -- are vivid examples of how a gifted writer can find meaning in the chaos of daily experience and discover humanity in history's dry facts. In their different, eloquent ways, they showed us the personal dimensions of public events.

We're still, however, thinking about the books we couldn't include, ones that we nevertheless want to urge on you as provocative, thrilling, enlightening, amusing and otherwise well worth your time.

We decided to limit the final 10 to books that hung together as a unified whole, eliminating collections like Nicholson Baker's droll book of essays, "The Size of Thoughts," and "Burning Your Boats," a selection of the late Angela Carter's perverse, jewellike stories.

After reading Stephen Jay Gould's "Full House," we will never have a clear conscience about making judgments based on statistics -- even if that middle section on batting averages was tough going at times. Suzanne Berger's memoir of disability, "The Horizontal Woman," made us contemplate the unthinkable. Stephen Ambrose's history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, "Undaunted Courage," is history made both gripping and immediate, and kept us up late turning pages. Andrew O'Hagan's essay on disappearing people, "The Missing," and D.J. Waldie's "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" gave us chills. Mark Singer's "Citizen K" made us regard our own profession with a jaundiced eye. Richard Ellis' "Deep Atlantic" took us to a strange, fascinating environment we'll never visit in real life. And John Thorne's vigorous memoir/cookbook "Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots" made us hungry to read everything this Maine writer has ever put to paper.

To avoid the appearance of nepotism, we ruefully eliminated excellent books by our friends: Jim Paul's remarkable fictional meditation on the persistent irrationality of human thought, "Medieval in LA," and Jonathan Lethem's disturbing, hallucinatory short story collection, "The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye."

We savored some "big" books by established novelists -- John Updike's "The Beauty of the Lillies," A.S. Byatt's "Babel Tower," John Edgar Wideman's "The Cattle Killing," Paul Theroux's "My Other Life," Jamaica Kincaid's "Autobiography of My Mother," Ron Hansen's "Atticus" -- even if other titles wound up shouldering them off the list. Novels and collections like Karen Joy Fowler's "The Sweetheart Season," George Saunders' "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and Victor Pelevin's "Omen Ra" gave us reason to anticipate that these less-well-known writers will soon become familiar names.

Despite the many times we've complained about the critic's lot -- plowing through piles of bad, boring and just plain mediocre new books -- this project reminded us of just how many terrific books were published in 1996. In fact, our first New Year's resolution is to get an early start on picking next year's winners.