I have a Top Book of 2010. Yes, a book. Singular.
I was considering posting a Top Books of 2010 list. After all, that’s what people do. The New York Times did it, Publishers Weekly did it, The Daily Beast did it, The Huffington Post did it, you get the idea.
And, if all these guys are jumping on the literary soap box, so would I. And I eventually did (see the bold, red text below) but not in the way I expected.
Scribbling together a preliminary list, I realized that I read very little in 2010 that was new, and if a list is going to be about the “Top Books” of a year, it should be comprised of books published that year, right? And, it shouldn’t lump fiction and non-fiction together, higgledy-piggledy, yet I had not read a lot of fiction in 2010.
What Did I Read?
A good deal of what I read in 2010 was non-fiction, but there were literary works like Shipley’s remarkable J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and Giles Gunn’s A Historical Guide to Herman Melville.
Still, the bulk of it was made up of social science books like Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality and background material like Duby’s The Three Orders : Feudal Society Imagined and John Bierhorst’s intriguing Mythology of the Lenape. Also among my fave reads were Get Rid of the Performance Review! by Samuel Culbert and the similarly exclamatory Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder.
I guess Snyder’s book could be considered related to literature, since it’s about how to write screenplays. The title advice, in fact, is something any writer would benefit from.
Then there were my used bookstore finds, like the The Collected Poetry of Dorothy Parker and New England Legends and Folklore. Not to mention the major score I took home when the downtown Borders® closed. But, as wonderful as many of these books were, they were all over-shadowed by a book I stumbled on completely by accident.
The Top One Book of 2010
I finally decided that the most significant book I read in 2010 was The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and filled with remarkable short stories by award-winning authors, stories which defy the tread-worn stereotypes about fantasy fiction. The “secret” part is that these tales constitute a history of fantasy not about elfstones and unicorns. This is innovative, dare I say “literary” fantasy.
Although the stories themselves have been published before, as a new collection Secret History could not come at a better time, with a debate simmering about the discriminatory divide between the self-anointed “literary fiction” of modern realist writer and fans contrasted against all other genres.
This is why I chose it. Despite the fact that there might have been better writing published in 2010, no other book of which I am aware captures a key cultural trend in literature at this point in time: away from the sort of literary apartheid that has typified the culture of letters for decades toward a more inclusive, more honest appraisal of the quality to be found in all genres of fiction writing.
The technological and economic trends in publishing and literature are obvious and well discussed; this cultural trend, I feel, is in its infancy — grossly under-reported and under-recognized.
Not only will the tales in this anthology renew your faith in the short story, but its diversity and the quality of the writing debunk the absurd prejudice that fantasy fiction is hobbled by conventions and devoid of literary merit.
Beagle penned an informative introduction, but more valuable are his reprints of Le Guin’s classic essay on essay on fantasy, “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” and David G. Hartwell’s history of fantasy fiction in the second half of the 20th century, which explains the sordid business origins of category fantasy, illuminating how this derivative shadow of Tolkien and White could be easily mistaken (but only by the incurious and poorly informed) for the entire genre.
To one-up the ubiquitous Top Ten lists, these are my Top Eleven short stories (in no particular order) from The Secret History of Fantasy.
“Scarecrow” by Gregory Maguire of Wicked fame. As you can imagine, this story is about the Scarecrow of Oz, from his point-of-view, in fact. A charming little fable about the limits of knowledge and how that affects our moral judgments.
“Lady of the Skulls” by multiple award-winner Patricia A. McKillip, a touching parable of greed, death, and romance.
“We Are Norsemen” by T. C. Boyle (best known for the PEN/Faulkner Award-wining novel World’s End), a hilarious misadventure reeling with literary irony.
“The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser (who won a Pulitzer for his novel Martin Dressler), a gorgeously imagined character sketch for a building which one begins to suspect, as the story progresses, is in fact an allegory for … well, you decide what you think.
“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” by Stephen King, whose name I will assume you’ve heard. It’s set in Maine, of course, but a Maine that defies Euclidean geometry, invokes classical mythology, and confirms King’s place as one of the great story-tellers of our age.
“Bears Discover Fire,” a Hugo Award winner by Terry Bisson. At the end of this story you may ask yourself why bears had to discover fire for Bisson to tell this story. But then, try to imagine it otherwise, without the fantasy element.
“Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman, another name that needs no explanation. Curiously enough, this is the second short story reworking of Snow White that I’ve read this year. Gaiman’s tale is by far the creepier of the two, and turns the tale on its head in the best tradition of literature commenting on literature.
“The Empire of Ice Cream,” a Nebula Award winner by Jeffrey Ford, this is a moving story about an artistic boy who meets a curious girl through his synesthesia, and learns a terrible secret about himself.
“The Edge of the World” by the award-winning Michael Swanwick, is a masterpiece in the artful injection of striking fantastic elements into a realistic setting, in this case a literal edge to the world, somewhere in the Middle East, where the Earth simply ends in a precipice.
“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn. How can I describe this superhero tale? I can’t. But, it is funny throughout, contains some solid character development, and will make you jump at the end with both surprise and satisfaction.
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by the award-winning Kij Johnson. A depressed woman looking for a change surprises herself by purchasing a carnival act consisting of monkeys (and one ape!) who can mysteriously vanish into thin air.