I like “best of lists” as they are fun, convenient and easy to argue about with friends, but beneath their luster lurks notable problems if you seek great works. It’s far too easy to forget the label “best” is an invention granted by the list maker, whose tastes and opinions of quality might not align with yours. Keep this list below in mind whenever you read a top list of anything:
- Popular is not necessarily good. For a work to make a best of list it has to be popular enough for the listmakers to have discovered it. This means there is a bias towards popular works, which might not necessarily be the best, or even good (What else did the list maker read or see this year that did not make the list? We are rarely told). For example, the most popular hamburger in America is (probably) made by McDonald’s, and some of the most popular music is made by Justin Bieber. (See Being Popular vs. Being Good). It’s possible for a work to be both popular and great, but it’s not guaranteed.
- It can take years for works to earn the respect they deserve. Many great works were not popular or respected in the year they were first released. Moby Dick, The Empire Strikes Back (received mixed reviews on release), It’s A Wonderful Life (mixed reviews), The Shining (earned a nomination for Worst Director for Stanley Kubrik), Fight Club, and many more. And of course many amazing works never get the acclaim they deserve.
- Works benefit from cumulative advantage. Once a work gets a high profile review, it’s more likely to get other ones. This benefit, called cumulative advantage, means that the most well known movies or books aren’t necessarily the best, but they’re the most well known for being the best. Consider this: have you ever been very disappointed by a movie that all the critics loved? Or found a random unheard-of movie and loved it? Cumulative (dis)advantage may be part of the reason for both experiences. And don’t forget, many best of lists can be cheated by people with enough money or influence (raising how grey the line between ethical and unethical marketing can be).
- Best for whom? Your personal favorites might not be the works you think are actually the best. We all have different preferences for the kind of art we like. A best of list presumes we all share common sensibilities, which may or may not be true for you. It can be far better to get recommendations from people who know what you like, or who you follow specifically because of their sensibilities and preferences.
- The most popular can be the least interesting. A book with a 4 star average might be far less interesting to read than a book with a 3 star average. Averages hide the variance of opinions. For example a 3 star average could mean half the readers gave it 5 stars and half gave it 1 star, which would mean the work was highly polarizing (and possibly very interesting for that reason). A book that exclusively earned 4 stars, with little variance, could be a simpler kind of story that was satisfying but far less challenging or memorable.
I do hope you enjoy this year’s round of best of lists. And I hope my own list above you use them more thoughtfully.