The beginning of March is really exciting because one of my favorite sporting events begins. No, it’s not March Madness. It’s the Morning News Tournament of Books!
Sixteen books published within the last year battle for the championship. Two books go up against each other on weekdays in March. One of sixteen judges writes about the two books, revealing their likes, dislikes and bias. And then the judge chooses one book to proceed in the tournament. Two books make it to the championship round and all sixteen judges vote on the winning book. There are some rounds that follow a different format like the pre-tournament playoff round and the Zombie round, where the most popular voted book gets resurrected. It’s good fun.
It’s a wonderful collection of books, mostly fiction, that vary from critical darlings to lesser known works. I have never read a single book in the tournament before it begins but it doesn’t matter. I get acquainted with books that I probably wouldn’t have known about. Some of the books I’ve read are fantastic or just good. But the books have always been worth reading. This tournament introduces me to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. (It’s not quite as good as The Poisonwood Bible but it’s well worth reading and takes place in early 20th century Mexico).
It kicked me to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. All three won their respective tournaments and then picked up major prizes. But it’s not only about the critical darlings. Some famous writers like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 got booted in its year fairly early.
When I’ve told people about this tournament before, I’ve been asked, “How can it work? It’s so subjective.” And it’s true. One judge may have very different reading preferences and tolerances than another. It’s not like there is an easy score to declare a winner. But I think that the subjectivity of it is fascinating. I get to read about how people think about books in comparison with one another. I may not always agree with their reasoning but it’s fascinating to see their thought processes about literature.
So go and get pumped. The tournament proper starts Thursday. The pre-tournament playoff was Monday so there isn’t a lot of catch-up.