It is an unusually hot day in April when I walk to the Strand bookstore. I grow warmer passing the NYU students skating at Union Square Park and cooler when I shift my Joan Didion tote bag to my other shoulder. When I step in, I realize the air inside the Strand is uncomfortably hot. The merchandise and crowds act as extra insulation, and feverish book lovers emit enough body heat to render the entire store reminiscent of Payne Whitney Gym’s now-defunct sauna. My legs take me over to the most popular section, where a sign that says, “Best of the Best” looms over the stacks of books. As my hands hover over Just Kids by Patti Smith, an elderly man leans over and mutters to me, “If this is best of the best, we’re in trouble.”
But what does it take for a book to enter the so-called “best of the best?” My senior year was consumed by a questionably named “Great Books” AP English class where I spent more time bemoaning having been assigned the works of James Joyce than I did reading them. Later, I found a 1998 article by the New York Times that listed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the third-best book of all time, with Ulysses and The Great Gatsby occupying the first and second spots. While the Twitter aphorism “that’s cap” comes to mind, surely this list is not all without merit. The voice of Joyce’s omniscient Stephen Dedalus is beautifully unprecedented. On the commercial side of things, Fitzgerald’s book was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Most importantly, these books have withstood the harshest critic: time. But what happens when times change? What books are the best of the best, then?
It is only my third day on Old Campus when my suitemate declares in our common room, “I genuinely consider myself a smut expert. Or connoisseur. Whichever you prefer.” In her elevator pitch for her latest read, she details a graphic ripping-out of a belly piercing, au naturel lube (combine two-and-two, dear reader!), and coitus that would have de Beauvoir sprinting for the church. “I think it’s my new favorite book,” my suitemate says. A couple of days later, the title in question floats across my screen while I’m scrolling through TikTok. Later, three of us in the suite notice a copy of the same Emily Henry book in each of our rooms. Knowingly, assuredly, we nod to each other and squeal—the unspoken influence of BookTok is all around us.
Unfortunately for the Times, these BookTok-famous novels have an advantage that their bestseller-listed books do not: palatability. Critics and DS students may call out contemporary books for their commercialism, for their “fast plots” and “easy writing,” but who on TikTok or Instagram is capable of making mood boards celebrating the writings of Plato or Philip Roth? Is it not more aesthetically pleasing to see the line “I’m not a religious person, but I do sometimes think God made you for me” (Sally Rooney, Normal People) as the background to a thirty-second montage of Pinterest pictures than “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road” (James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist)? It seems rational that the majority of readers today would rather envision the mythical romance of Patrocles and Achilles than they would the soul-sucking, controversial land of Nabokov’s Lolita.
In some ways, the books splashed all over BookTok benefit from a harsh question posed by contemporary debates on the literary canon: how many of the world’s “best books” are actually good? Many of these books have defeated time, yet their age only perpetuates their authority. After all, the older it is, the better it must be. In academia, there is a hesitancy to call out the “best of the best”—academics adjudicating value to the same books time and time again—and this shyness has left the development and celebration of contemporary literature behind, creeping along more slowly than ever.
If twelve years of English classes have revealed anything, it is that the art of choosing what to read is entirely subjective. I doubt the old man from the Strand will ever pick up a copy of Normal People, and I will likely never finish Lolita. So, I suppose the only thing left to do is read.