March Madness for book nerds



The Tournament of Books Rooster: the only March trophy that matters.
  • The Morning News
  • The Tournament of Books Rooster: the only March trophy that matters
One of the great things about the NCAA men's basketball tournament is that it's inspired lots of other tournaments for people who, like me, don't give a shit about college basketball. (I blame this on having attended Northwestern.) Now we too can have the joy of drawing up brackets and picking out our favorite, no, wait, our favorite favorite thing from 64 63 other similar things, and then seeing our hopes crushed multiple times.

The problem with many of these tournaments, though, is that the winners of each match are determined by popular vote. There are very few upsets. And the popular vote tends to skew toward the thing that is not necessarily the best, but the thing that the majority can agree that they like. (Nowhere was this more apparent than in Jezebel's 2012 Sex versus Chocolate matchup, which was won by the missionary position.)

I prefer a bit more nuance in my March Madness, and some opportunity for serious debate and analysis, just like the basketball fans have. That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. The other reason is that I really like books.

Like the NCAA, and unlike the other web tourneys, the Tournament of Books is more elitist than populist. It includes only literary fiction. The winners are determined not by popular vote, but by a single judge, one for each matchup. The Morning News staff selects 17 books to start. Two will square off before the tournament proper begins to determine who gets the final berth. Then there is a match every weekday, in the form of an essay written by the judge, usually another writer, explaining his or her decision. Morning News readers get to vote on which of the eliminated books they want to come back for a Zombie Round. Then all 16 judges vote for the winner of the final matchup. There is commentary after every match, first from novelists Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner (who is also Printer's Row's Biblioracle), and then from the Morning News commenters, who, although they use pseudonyms, are remarkably literate, insightful, and polite.

The 17 original books, as the organizers explained in their announcement of this year's contest, are not necessarily the best books of 2013—because there are so many definitions of what makes a book the "best"—but the most representative. And so this year's tournament includes big books from big New York publishers, small books from small indie presses, books by writers who have appeared on Oprah, books by authors no one has ever heard of, books in translation, books that are considered "young adult," and the Booker Prize winner.

For the most part, the matchups are uneven. You get Elizabeth Gilbert's "please love me!" The Signature of All Things squaring off against The Dinner, Herman Koch's exercise in misanthropy, and The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri's examination of a lifetime of repression, facing Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell's story of teenage first love. How do you choose?

That's what makes the Tournament of Books so great. The judges' essays are not so much about why one book is better than the other, but why they prefer one book more than the other. Which is a serious question when you consider any sort of art form. What kind of person are you?

Yesterday, for instance, in the first match of the quarterfinals, judge Lydia Kiesling had to choose between Hill William by Scott McClanahan, a collection of brutal vignettes about life in rural West Virginia, and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a novel about teenage bullying. (Neither of these basic descriptions does the books justice.) Kiesling loved A Tale for the Time Being immediately. "Some books are so upfront about the fact that they are going to beguile the shit out of you," she wrote, "that you can’t do anything but cancel your plans, hunker down on the couch with your mohair blankie, and be beguiled." Reading Hill William, by contrast, "I felt the urge to hunker down, but only to protect myself from the raw shit the universe doles out to the people living in it."

The choice seemed clear. But what about the other factors, like that A Tale for the Time Being had been reviewed in the New York Times and has a blurb from Oprah on its cover, while "Hill William is a small unorthodox square, with authentic typos on its thin pages. Everything about it says 'underdog.'" Did she really want to be so establishment and bourgeois? But why should she have to apologize for liking what she likes? Or, as she put it, "I think that, in contests like these, bizarre things happen when people circumvent their aesthetic instincts to satisfy a metric of quality or justice to which they do not naturally ascribe."

Who hasn't ever felt like that?

Or maybe you've felt like John Green, who on Monday was torn between Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. He liked Life After Life, particularly its "precise characterizations and relationships." But he was blown away by The People in the Trees, which, while less technically skilled (it was Yanagihara's first novel), was unlike anything he'd ever read before. As Guilfoile pointed out in his postmatch commentary, there is nothing so exciting—if you're a reader anyway—as reading a new writer for the very first time.

(Still, this judgment was disappointing to me because Life After Life was one of my own favorite novels of 2013. But it has made me curious enough about The People in the Trees to place a copy on reserve as soon as I pay my library fines. I can afford to be sanguine because Life After Life looks like a sure bet to come back in the Zombie Round.)

You find dilemmas like this all over the Tournament of Books, all of which point to the bigger questions of why do we read and how do we choose what we read. Do we pick the books that are good company, or the books that we can't quite figure out, or the books that are written in gorgeous prose, or the books that take us someplace new, or the books that make us see what we thought we've always known in a new way? and etc. It's always good to come back to these questions, I think, instead of just blindly picking up whatever's on the bestseller list or pretending to like books or writers we've been told are prestigious. But I think the best lesson from the Tournament of Books is that none of the answers to these questions—or the judgments—is wrong.

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