The grandaddy of them all, however, is the Tournament of Books, mounted by the Morning News Web site and now in its sixth year. Unlike DABWAHA, ToB doesn't offer prizes to readers who make the most accurate predictions, and unlike all the other contests, it doesn't rely on polling readers to determine the winning books. Instead, a single guest judge selects the victor in each bracket, while the tournament's overseers, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, serve up commentary garnished with the occasional dab of sportscaster lingo ("quintuple toe loop"?). There's even an official statistician who crunches such questionably significant numbers as (I think I have this right) the ratio of an entry's length to its likeliness to ascend to the next round.
The ToB has a healthy sense of its own absurdity, evidenced by the fact that the first round put Hilary Mantel's doorstop historical novel set in the court of Henry VIII, "Wolf Hall," up against "Logicomix," a graphic "novel" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell's effort to establish the logical foundations of mathematics. Both could be called historical fiction, but beyond that, the notion of weighing them against each other is so silly that it effectively pegs the entire contest as a goof. ("Wolf Hall" won that round, by the way.)
Because the competition itself is essentially meaningless, ToB is a Trojan horse. Under the guise of a sports conceit, it encourages people to read outside their comfort zones and reflect on the often knee-jerk judgments they make about books they've never even cracked open. In what other circumstances (besides having a job as a book reviewer) might someone wind up reading both John Wray's "Lowboy," a novel about a schizophrenic 16-year-old, aptly likened by judge Andrew Womack to a "cool indie flick," and Kathryn Stockett's best-selling book club favorite, "The Help"?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
March Madness: The Tournament of Books
I just saw this in Salon, for all of you voracious readers, or anyone looking to expand their reading horizons: