What is a “favorite” book — and why is it hard to come up with ten of them?
Reading a book is supposed to transport you. But can reading about reading books do the same? I would have said yes before, but now I’m proof: Three book-related things I’ve read recently have made me embark on a journey.
It all started back in December, when my favorite book blogger Sally Allen posted about a holiday read-a-thon she was participating in. The read-a-thon asked participants a few book-related questions, which Sally posted. And while I loved reading her answers, the post left me feeling uneasy because I couldn’t answer most of them, myself.
Like Sally, I’m a bibliophile. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and I read a lot — at least one book every week or so, on average. I have the typical habits of most book lovers I know, as well — buying way too many books, having a strong opinion about physical tomes versus e-readers, and always carrying something to read with me, even if I’m just going to the grocery store.
Books have been a wonderous and comforting part of life for as long as I can remember. That’s not an exaggeration or cliché: Some of my earliest memories are poring over illustrated children’s books in my bedroom, and pondering over the lasciviously illustrated romance novels at the beach house we went to every summer.
As I got older, through hard and awful times, words were there for me — words to read and words I’d write, myself. When I was evacuated from my building on September 11, 2001, one of the first things I did when I headed into a drugstore to buy essentials, was to grab a book — it was as important as underwear.
And yet, reading questions about a favorite holiday read, or a book I always recommend to someone left me scratching my head. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I was just too caught up in the holidays to focus, and after all, the question about recommending a book isn’t something I would do anyway — I always match a book to the person I’m talking to. Not everyone will fall in love with the same one, no matter how great I think it is.
Then came an unexpected lockdown gift. Artist Adam J. Kurtz published a 42-page fill-in journal that anyone can download for free. I was thrilled and have enjoyed filling in a lot of it. Until I reached what I’d thought would be my favorite page — a stack of ten books with blank bindings, asking you to fill in your ten favorites.
I know my absolute favorite book. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett has enraptured me and summed up so much about how I see the world ever since I first read it when I was in second grade. But what about the nine other books?
Back in high school, I loved filling in lists like this. But now, instead of tackling the task with joy, I had a sort of existential reading crisis. What makes a book a favorite, exactly? There are many books I’ve read once but really enjoyed, and there are others I hold dear but don’t want to read again. Can a book be a favorite only if you want to revisit it? And of course, what happens if what I thought of as favorite books are ones I’ve grown out of?
I started wondering if the amount of books I read, and the speed at which I read them, might also have thrown things into question. Is it so hard for me to pick ten I love because potential favorites have been drowned in the flood?
In A Little Princess, Sara Crewe’s beloved father says this about her relationship to books:
“She doesn’t read them…she gobbles them up as if she were a little wolf instead of a little girl. She is always starving for new books to gobble….”
Do I gobble too much? Should I stop and savor?
And then, two weeks ago, Sally posted another article with read-a-thon questions that got me questioning myself even more.
I know I love reading. I know books are an intrinsic part of the fabric of my life. But why can’t I talk about my favorites with any sense of certainty?
As weeks passed and the shock of what’s currently going on the world became a bottled wind inside of me, I found that I was finally able to answer all of the questions Sally had posted. But that blank stack of books in Adam JK’s journal was still daunting.
And then I thought, why not? So I sat down and quickly tried to come up with what seems to meet the “favorite” criteria — books I love and want to read again and escape to. Books that maybe say something about me or the way I see the world, or at least have influenced it in some way (yes, even a novel about vampires). Books that catch me up in their spell and make me see things in a heightened or different or magical way for a while (and maybe for a long time after).
Before, I would have only included fiction, but I realize that some of the books I turn and return to don’t fit into that category. I also realize one of my absolute favorite things to read isn’t a single work or even a series, but a trope or subgenre.
I made my list, but I allowed myself to add something to those bindings. Several of the books I chose are ones I’ve considered favorites since I was a teenager — in some cases, even younger than that. It’s been a long time since I’ve read them. And so, for those, I placed a question mark before the title.
And then I thought, why not erase the question marks?
Like most bibliophiles, I still have my stack of books to read, and it will have to wait longer. Instead, I’m going on a journey back to the books I’ve said I love for years.
Do they still hold up for me? Or were they just something that thrilled me at the time? Are there a few striking parts that have stuck with me, or is the entire book just as important and moving an experience as it was the first time I read it?
I’m in the middle of the first questionable favorite now. And I’m happy to say that The Secret Garden (yes, another Burnett book) does hold up. I had my doubts, since the setting is so remote (I’m a city girl and have only grown more so over the years) and the book doesn’t seem to have much happen in it. Not that I’m looking for non-stop action. But it’s far from dull. And some parts have even made me tear up. I may be a city girl, but I do know what it is to feel a connection with an animal, even so. It’s also been interesting reading this book now that I’m a mother. The ways the children are taken care of — some with great love and some with horrifying neglect — has taken on a new meaning.
Once I finish this one, I’m on to new lands. Well, I’ll stay in England with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, but it will be a very different time and tone. Then, I’ll head to Paris and another era and style, with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Once quarantine has been lifted here in France and we’re allowed to travel more than a kilometer from our homes, I’ll go to our storage unit and find my copy of Interview With the Vampire and go back very vividly through time. Will Louis and Lestat still measure up?
These are the sorts of adventures I love, and I can’t thank Sally and Adam JK enough for unknowingly inspiring them.
If this post has you wondering about your own list of favorite books, why not go back and discover if they still hold as much meaning to you now?
Here’s my list, if you were wondering. The titles without question marks are the ones I feel sure of. The books aren’t ranked in any particular order, except for number 1, which is my number one all-time favorite book, no question (mark):
1. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
2. ?The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
3. ?The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
4. ?Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
5. The Norton Anthology of Poetry
6. Kiki et Montparnasse by Billy Klüver and Julie Martin
7. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
9. Pretty much any version of “Beauty and the Beast”, from the original fairytale, to loosely-based, modern-set adaptations. I am in love with this fairytale and its possible variations and dynamics. Even if I don’t ultimately like the result of one author’s creation, I’ll have certainly had a moment where I felt transported in reading it.
10. ?Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller