Why is it that sometimes we love the old and other times we love the new? When it comes to the arts, my sense is that many people appreciate old paintings, sculpture and architecture, even to the exclusion of modern examples, but when it comes to movies, books and music, they only like what’s new. (In the case of music, I find many people get stuck listening to the music they liked in their teens and 20s for the rest of their lives, as if music that happened before they were born or after they turned 30 holds no possible interest.)
I find these attitudes perplexing, but I am not going to try to argue folks out of their particular tastes when it comes to art. I will say that my life has been enriched immeasurably by opening myself up to works of art from all time periods. (It is no coincidence that most of the meta-lists on the Make Lists, Not War website include the phrase “of all time” in the title.) This includes paintings, sculptures, mixed media and architecture, on the one hand, but also music, literature, photography and film. Watching Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante or Carl Theodor Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is just as thrilling to me as watching the latest art film playing at the local theater. Reading literature from Ancient Greece and Rome, or from the Middle Ages, or even the mid-20th Century has provided me with artistic experiences that are equal to and in some cases better than from reading current books. Similarly, with music, I find recordings from the 1920s, 1930s and later to be as fulfilling to listen to as the latest albums from contemporary musicians, and music composed in the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods does not disappoint merely because it is hundreds of years old.
I’ve been doing “best of the year” lists since 2000, but there is no reason to stop there. Although getting information for specific years prior to 2000 is difficult, there are plenty of “best of the decade” lists available. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to go back just a little bit and find lists of the best literature of the 1980s and 1990s. These lists are interesting because in addition to literary fiction and important works of nonfiction, there is quite a bit of genre fiction on the lists: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, young adult, children’s literature. In the past, the experts, academics and critics haven’t always been kind to genre fiction, but it seems to be getting more respect in recent years. In the future, I plan to collect lists from even earlier decades.
Here are the new lists: