Monday, March 12, 2012

Bracketology for Readers - Tourney of Books

Click the chart to to view an enlarged version.

By Paul Gagne, Guest Blogger

Have you filled out your bracket yet? Not that bracket. This one.

The folks over at The Morning News have been running the Tournament of Books concurrently with NCAA March Madness for eight years now, and it has helped to sustain a higher level of book discussion on the web.

In the Tournament, sixteen books are seeded from 1-4, with perceived powerhouse authors such as Haruki Murakami and Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes receiving #1 seeds. Judges are assigned to each pair of books, with the winning book moving on to the next round, and so on until the final, which is decided by the opinions of all the judges, plus a tiebreaker.

If your favorite title gets eliminated before we reach the final four, don’t give up hope. There is also a Zombie round, in which a book knocked out in an early round comes back from the dead.

NPR explains the rules of the Tournament nicely, although if you think about the process of choosing the "best" book, what really makes one better than the other? This is not a heart-stopping contest decided by a buzzer-beater, and there won’t be any clutch fourth quarter free throw opportunities. There aren’t even points, after all. Judges bring biases to the table, and at least once, have admitted to not finishing both books they were assigned to evaluate. But like great basketball teams, books can have heart, they can finish strong, and on any given day, an underdog book can make a name for itself and inspire us all.
After reading only two of the titles in the 2011 competition, this year I’ve managed to read a record 8 7 6.75 titles – the Barnes, Hollinghurst, Ondaatje, Obreht, Pollock, and Harbach (I’m in the middle of Open City by Teju Cole). For the most part, I’ve been disappointed, especially with two titles that our literary betters across the pond assured us would be top competitors. The Julian Barnes title (really, the Booker Prize for so little?) and the Hollinghurst, a lovely study of a family’s and a country’s authorial myth-making, both fell just a little short of expectations.
I admired Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, a fictionalized account of the author's trip as a boy from Ceylon to England, and I liked The Tiger's Wife by Obreht, which like the Hollinghurst, is about a family and culture’s myth-making and history, but I felt no lasting emotional tie to either.

I enjoyed the Devil All the Time, as it harkens to Cormac McCarthy, Jim Thompson, and maybe even Flannery O’Connor. It’s depraved in all the right ways, although, with as much pulpy plot as it has, I doubt it’s a tournament winner.
The contest started last Thursday, and runs through the end of March. The Morning News people do a great job with their own commentary on the Tournament, and there are several sites around the web that add their voices, and even post odds on the eventual winner. The Tournament is a lot of fun, and we’ll be posting a couple of updates on it over the next few weeks. In the meantime, it’s not too late to get a couple of competing books read . . . 

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