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The crazy proliferation of March Madness book contests

March 14, 2011 | 12:49 pm


First there was the NCAA's March Madness, a monthlong series of battles among college basketball teams. They were put in brackets, with winners facing off against winners, right up until a final championship game.

Picking up on the enthusiasm for the basketball tournament and applying it entirely inappropriately to literature, the website the Morning News launched the Tournament of Books in 2005. Each year, the contest has an array of literary judges, color commentary from Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, and one book that makes an interesting, teetering path to victory.

In 2007, Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day" was eliminated from the Tournament of Books by New Yorker staffer Sasha Frere-Jones, who decided it was just too big. "I am never going to read a novel that is more than 1,000 pages long. A thousand? Sure -- I've got lifetimes to throw away," he wrote. "But 1,001 is a dealbreaker." (In the end, Frere-Jones managed to read the first 300 pages of "Against the Day" before voting it down.) They key here is the transparency -- in contrast to traditional book award contests, in which deliberations are conducted behind closed doors, the Tournament of Books asks each writer to explain their read on the books and decision about the winner.

The whole project is, clearly, meant to be taken in fun. But was it meant to be simply taken? Because it has been.

The idea was first adopted by School Library Journal, which launched its Battle of the Kids Books in 2008. The 2010 contest has just begun, with "As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth" by Lynne Rae Perkins facing off against Louis Sachar's "The Card Turner."

In 2009, New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser launched the Piglet, a tournament of cookbooks. Last year, the Piglet's judges included writers and foodies; its final judge was none other than chef Mario Batali. A 2011 Piglet hasn't yet begun.

Both of these contests acknowledge the Morning News' Tournament of Books as inspiration for their own contests. But the latest March Madness bookish contest has just taken the idea and run.

"Out of Print is taking book allegiance to the next level with the inaugural edition of Book Madness," the company wrote in a news release last week. "In keeping with its mission of celebrating the world's great stories in new and unexpected ways, Out of Print is offering readers worldwide a chance to express their love of classic books in the form of a 64-book tournament."

Unexpected -- for those who've never heard of the Tournament of Books, the Piglet or the Battle of the Kids Books, I guess. Books, brackets -- yep, seen that before.

Anyway, Out of Print makes T-shirts adorned with classic book covers. Its contest has no judges; instead, it asks readers to vote. Those who do will be entered in a drawing for a $500 Out of Print gift certificate.

Asked for comment about Out of Print's contest, the Morning News' co-founder, Rosecrans Baldwin, wrote, "Seeing how The Morning News Tournament of Books started as a drunken lark, we're very flattered that it's become a big enough deal to be imitated."

So lift a glass, gentlepeople, and go vote.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ohio State Buckeyes fan John "Big Nut" Peters celebrates after his team beat Penn State in the championship game of the 2011 Big Ten men's basketball tournament on Sunday. Credit: Chris Chambers / Getty Images