Books of the Year 2004

By Benjamin Schwarz

December 2004 ATLANTIC

01-Wonderful-Vintage-School-Library-PostersA “book of the year” is one from which you should be able to derive pleasure and profit a decade hence. That eliminates books that are important only for the moment—that is, most political and policy books (even such an important contribution to today’s foreign-policy debate as Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous). It also eliminates a lot of really good books that aren’t great or almost great (such as Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, William Trevor’s A Bit on the Side, Edwin Williamson’sBorges, the bloated but important final volume of Norman Sherry’s life of Graham Greene, Ian Gilmour’s The Making of the Poets, and Michael Redhill’s regrettably neglected Fidelity); flawed but potentially great works in progress (for example, The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans); and also a lot of books that I think are getting undeserved attention and winning undue praise—among them Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. (I’ve also eliminated enduring scholarly books that are just too arcane.) So, yes, this is a serious list. And although everyone in the “serious” book business decries the lack of attention to literary fiction, I find the lack of attention to works of serious nonfiction to be an even bigger problem. As I write, only one of the nonfiction titles named here has been reviewed in The New York Times.

Finally, although this wasn’t a dreadful year in books, it’s one of the least good years for novels that I can remember. Readers will notice just two fiction titles—both short-story collections.

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