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The bookish March madness returns

March 10, 2009 | 11:47 am


The 2009 Tournament of Books at the Morning News has begun. Today marks the second matchup, in which the literary heavyweight "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill falls. But that's not how things always go; yesterday, the favorite (Roberto Bolanño's "2666") prevailed). In each daily round, two books are read by a single critic, who has to declare one a winner. And so on -- with a "zombie round" -- until one book climbs the brackets and is dubbed champion.

I don't understand how brackets work in the other March Madness, and I'm equally puzzled by the Tournament of Books. Apparently winning literary prizes sets books up to enter at later rounds, so "Netherland" -- which won the PEN/Faulkner Award -- was seeded lower than it might have been, had the award been announced earlier.

Previoulsy, color commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner have been fairly outrageous in their dialogue about the matchups, but this year they're a bit more subdued. Maybe that's because they've read (almost) all of the books in competition; their critiques seem more grounded. But they're still willing to voice opinions that  are rarely said in criticism, such as John Warner's take on "Netherland":

It’s essentially porn for hyper-literate New Yorkers, i.e., the sort of people who review books for the New York Times... I’m not saying that Netherland is a bad book, it just isn’t nearly as good a book as our privileged circles would have us believe.   

That's pretty substantive commentary for a contest that is inherently silly, but I think the literary conversation benefits. The idea that books might be put head-to-head in a competitive smackdown is flashy, funny, and nonsensical -- but is it really any odder than asking a panel of people to collectively agree on the book they think is best? Can the brackets deliver more interesting results?

The odds in this race, sadly, run in favor of traditional wisdom. For the second year, Coudal Partners has set up a betting room so we can all wager on our favorite books. The bets, which are $20 each, go to the charity First Book -- last year's take helped purchase more than 5,000 books for needy kids. I'm not sure how they figured their handicapping (just like the brackets, I'm content to let it remain a mystery) but "Netherland" was their favorite, with 2-to-1 odds. So now the field is shaken up. Time to lay some money on a long shot?

-- Carolyn Kellogg