Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Bill James of Books

I've done my fair share of handicapping various book awards this past year and Counterbalance (via LAist) has had some fun with the upcoming LA Times Book Prizes (tomorrow night!), but nobody takes awards coverage quite as far as Max at The Millions. Max has come up with an entire system of assigning value to books based on how many awards they've won and how many they were shortlisted or finalists for. It's an ingenious system, perfect in its simplicity. And three years since its inception, it seems to be working. It certainly passes the eye-ball test. Atop the list is Edward P. Jones' The Known World, which scored an 11 on the scale after having won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the IMPAC/Dublin (a UK award), and placing as a finalist for the National Book Award (won in 2003 by Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire). Rounding out the top ten are The Corrections, Underworld, The March, Line of Beauty (which cleaned up the British awards in 2004), Middlesex, Atonement, The Hours, Last Orders, and Quarantine. Not a bad list. You wouldn't be laughed at if you argued that those were the ten best books of the last ten years.

Any metric (or stat, for those who don't read Baseball Prospectus) will have its imperfections, but the best ones confirm something we might have known only intuitively or refute something we erroneously believed to be true. In this case, the first few books on the list would've been near the top of my "big important books of the last ten years" list, which is nice. The rest of the list reveals a whole lot of books (many of them from England, Ireland, or Australia) that I haven't read.

Other observations from looking at the list: Don DeLillo's Underworld is the Mike Mussina of the big important book world, as the highest-ranking book never to have actually won any of the awards (but a finalist for all the major ones). Women are still woefully underrepresented amongst the major awards (despite the year the National Book Award chose "all those women's books"). So maybe this list reveals more than just who's been recognized by the prizes, but also who hasn't.


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