The Man Who Collected 1,320 Best-Books-of-2012 Lists

And in the process he learned something awesome.


Switch lists coming in by teletype at a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard, December 1942 (Library of Congress)

It's easy to be cynical about -- or perhaps merely bored by -- the annual profusion of best-of lists. There are simply so many that they begin to lose their meaning. What good is one best-of list, when hundreds of others lay their own claim to that superlative? The arbitrariness of any single list is laid bare by the sea of competing lists it swims among.*

But that vast sea might itself tell us something, if only we could see it all -- and that's the project writer and web developer David Gutowski has set himself to for five years, collecting all of the year's best-of-books lists into one massive meta-list, which he updates continuously on his site, Largehearted Boy, from mid-November to mid-January. He finds most of the lists through a couple dozen search strings he's developed over the years, and others are sent to him by readers, journalists, and other bloggers, he explained over email. As of today, he's collected 1,320 best books lists for 2012.

"Lists are pervasive in our culture -- even more so in the Internet age because they drive online traffic," he wrote. In the time since he started, Gutowski says he's seen some changes, as many media outlets try to compete for an original take -- for examples, he's observed an increasing number of negative lists (such as "worst books" or "most disappointing book"), more "most overlooked" lists, and more lists where famous authors are asked to name their own personal favorites.

But even given those exceptions, looking at his of list of lists you really can see the redundancy -- not to mention excess -- of this annual practice. But Gutowski sees something more beautiful in it: "I am continually amazed at the quality websites I have discovered through this project," he writes, "and am always heartened by the continued love for the written word in all its forms." Each list is a little mini labor of love, a celebration of the year's creativity, and Gutowski's meta-list is an aggregation -- and a reminder -- of that abundance.

*For a pitch perfect send-up of this state of affairs, see David Rees's Best-of-2012 collection, which includes gems such as this one, the "Top 10 Trends of 2012":

10. Memes
9. Styles
8. Events
7. Crazes
6. Surprises
5. Amazing things
4. "Did you see that?!"
3. "The question is, did you see that?!"
2. Unforgettable moments
1. Major trends
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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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