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

And in the process he learned something awesome.

1a34624v-615.jpg

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
Presented by

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In