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There Is No Best

In her tongue-in-cheek article, 'Best of' lists – what are they good for? Absolutely nothing, Bim Adewunmi gives these interesting reasons why she hates lists such as the British Film Institutes Greatest Films Poll:

• They remove originality of thought. Have you ever tried to compile a list of the best books of all time? Have you automatically written down any or all of these usual suspects – Dickens, Nabokov, Austen, or Woolf – without even realising? We’ve all done it. These authors and their many works are undoubtedly excellent, but is that the only reason they came to mind? No, they’ve been “normed” into your life. Who wants to be the lone wolf standing up in class and saying The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic is their favourite book of all time when everyone else is nodding soberly along to Madame Bovary? Break free of the tyranny of lists! PS: the Shopaholic series is a delight.

• They kill joy. We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, sure, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane? All my life, I’ve been told it is the best thing my eyes will ever see. I have Citizen Kane fatigue. This is what lists do – when the hype gets too much, all joy is extracted from the endeavour. For example, I’m fairly obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In previous years, I would wax lyrical about how amazing the show was, sitting people down and explaining – season by season – how layered and brilliantly conceived the show was, before pressing a box set into their hands, telling them: “Just watch it.” Inevitably, my overactive hype machine sucked all the joy from the situation. The simple pleasure of accidentally stumbling upon the magnificence was gone. The expectations are too high, the disappointment inescapable. These days, I’ve scaled back my enthusiasm. If people want to appreciate the wonder of a groundbreaking and perfectly pitched series that exquisitely explored the ideas of autonomy and feminism via a wisecracking teenager who battles supernatural beings, they will.

• They confirm your most depressing fear: you are desperately uncool. By definition, lists are exclusionary, separating the wheat from the perceived chaff. And while we all have views that might be considered a bit left field, we imagine those mark us out as cool mavericks, not social pariahs. But imagine the explicit confirmation that you’re wrong about everything – your favourite film, your most treasured book, your most beloved album. All wrong. Your very opinion: invalidated. No one wants that. The NHS couldn’t handle the strain of all the crushed egos.

My comments after the jump

Personally, I’ve always thought “Best of” lists were kinda silly. Fun maybe. But silly. It doesn’t even matter whether I agree with the particular list or not. I always come away from reading “Best of” lists shrugging my shoulders.

Jerry Coyne, in a post at Why Evolution is True, commented on the above article, saying:

A few readers have echoed similar sentiments, but I am a strong advocate and follower of “best-of” lists.  Yes, sometimes I’ll label my own posts as “best-of,” but it’s clear that these things are pretty subjective.  What I mean is “Jerry thinks these are the best.” I think it’s unproductive to use such lists as a barometer of how “sophisticated” one is, or to feel inferior to those who make the lists. It’s better to think of them as learning tools, or guidelines for growth.

Fair enough. And I agree. I would never begrudge anyone their list. I would never call for the end of all list making. That would be even sillier than the act of creating  ”Best of” lists.

I don’t even take issue with lists in general. I make lists for lots of things nearly everyday. I use lists to outline stories. Lists are a great format for organizing stuff into neat easily digestible material. 

These same “Best of” lists have also brought to my attention books and films that I would have never sought out on my own. But the argument can be made that things can be shared without ranking them in a list.

The devil lies within the ranking of the subjective. Subjectivity is one of those things that is always right and equally always wrong. People feel the way they feel about their individual experiences. And we can never experience something for another person. I can’t read a novel for you. It’s nowhere neat the same as you reading it for yourself.

All of us like what we like and dislike what we dislike. If I were to say that Ketchup is the better condiment than mustard, well, what does that mean exactly? I can’t make you like a thing simply by ranking it #1 on my personal list and proclaiming it to be the best. Nor would I particularly care if you disliked the thing that I liked. I will continue to like it, thank you very much have a nice day.

Russell Blackford at Talking Philosophy also commented on the above article in his post, saying:

There are going to be reasons why certain conventions and standards are more relevant than others, and why skilled critics, or at least those from similar backgrounds or with similar interests, are likely to converge to a great extent on the same interpretations and evaluations. If that’s right, a list produced by people who are generally regarded as competent critics in a particular field will probably contain works that will be valued by anyone who has internalised much the same conventions of interpretation and standards of evaluation.

This is an interesting point that I can get on board with as well. There is some value in the collected wisdom of skilled critics. And I usually consider the critics point of view. But we’ve all had things recommended to us that we either shared the opinion of the critic or disagreed with them. In the end, the “Best of” lists don’t really add up to anything meaningful.

Instead of lists, I usually try to just share stuff I think is cool with people whom I think would be into that sort of thing, and then hope they like it too. If not, the world keeps turning. And they’re not a evil villains who should now be banished from the kingdom of MyTasteIsSuperior. If you were to ask me how was the Dark Knight Rises, I’d simply say that I enjoyed it. That doesn’t mean you will or you should. But I did.

There is no best anything. There is no greatest anything. There is only things we like a lot, dislike significantly, are indifferent towards, or aren’t even aware of its existence.

At least, that’s what I think. How about you? What do you think of “Best of” lists?

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