Playing Favorites With Favorites, or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Favorite Books

What’s your favorite book?

Maybe there are people for whom this isn’t a loaded question. I’m not sure I’ve met any of them. “Favorite” is a freeze-up word, a demand impossible to meet. Picking just one? Are you serious? But there are 17 books from just last year that are my favorites!

The thing about this question, though, is that it isn’t entirely about the answer. It’s also about what the answer seems to say—the shorthand inherent in talking about books, and who reads what, and what we get out of and return to in the ones we hold closest to our hearts. If someone tells you their favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye, you are likely to draw some conclusions about them. Same goes for someone who names The Princess Bride, or The Lord of the Rings. But what if they say A Tale for the Time Being or Firebreak or The Summer Prince? Does the answer still mean much if you don’t recognize the book?

Even if the book I love the most in all the world at this exact moment is a book I read just last week, if you ask what my favorite book is, I’m going to feel like I ought to name something you might recognize. A book that you’ve heard of, if not actually read. A book that’s stood the test of time, proven itself over years of reading and admiration, established itself as a work that continues to have something to say to readers. An answer that lets you put your assumptions about the book together with your assumptions about me, and do some basic math.

I think this sub-conversation is fascinating.

If you live in bookish spheres, books often take on aspects and colors and shades long before you read them. This can feel like something of a forbidden topic—like we’re supposed to come to all reading and all books fully open-minded, with no preconceived notions or ideas, blank pages ready to receive. We aren’t supposed to be affected by the marketing or the hype or the thing the author said on Twitter last week. 

Is it possible to read like that? Sure. It’s pretty magical when it does happen. But can it happen every time? Doubtful. And maybe it’s more useful, more practical and helpful, to accept that the world, the internet, the weather and—most of all—our own interior landscape affect our reading experiences. Reading is deeply subjective. The book that moves me to tears might make you scoff, and I might not be able to get through the dense prose that you find captivating. Neither of us is wrong. Neither of us is right, either. 

We make assumptions. We judge books by their covers. Based on the frequency with which that one John Waters quote makes the rounds, we judge people by their books, too. Why ask someone what their favorite book is? Because you want to know something about them, and the answer to that question is revealing. 

But it’s very easy to be wrong about what it reveals. And this brings me to something even the internet has yet to ruin for me: the pleasure of being wrong.

I love being pleasantly wrong about people, and I love being pleasantly wrong about books.

I think the reason we’re “supposed” to come to books with an impossibly pure open mind is because there’s so much resistance to the idea of being wrong. But I’ve been wrong about so many books. I thought Confessions of the Fox seemed too dense, so heavy with footnotes, and now I recommend it absolutely anytime anyone on Twitter asks for a recommendation that it even slightly fits. That book wedged itself into my heart and simply can’t be removed. I was absolutely resistant to reading The Golden Compass because everyone who told me to read it said “I never read fantasy, but this is great!” and as a fantasy reader, I didn’t trust people who said they never read fantasy.

The book is great.

It’s a skill, learning to enjoy being wrong. And it’s a joy and an education. The way that a person can seem unfriendly and then it turns out they were just nervous or having a bad day or were just thinking about something else entirely—books can be like that too. I didn’t think I’d like A Song for a New Day because I grew up in music circles and I’m skeptical and picky when it comes to books about bands and music. I didn’t think the book and I would get along. 

The book is great. 

When one person asks another person their favorite book, the answer is more than just the title of a book. If the answer is a famous book, a classic, one that the asker knows something about, then they’ve learned something about the person who loves it—or they think they have. Books have feelings, senses, atmospheres that hover around them even when we aren’t intimately familiar with the contents. A friend of mine said recently that she loves Lolita, but she’s reluctant to say so in most situations. People may jump to conclusions about what kind of reader loves Lolita. And not everyone’s willing to be wrong. 

“Favorite” becomes shorthand for “Who are you when you’re reading?” That shorthand shakes hands with a person’s presumptions about a classic book and becomes a Thing. This kind of person loves The Road. This kind of person loves Middlemarch. This kind of person says The Power Broker, no matter what. 

But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. “Favorite” is too all-encompassing. “Favorite” is a word that asks you to self-define, to be a Tolkien person or a Butler person or a Le Guin person. To pick and make a statement. But if there’s anything readers do, it’s keep reading. What if the real thing we’re wrong about is asking “What’s your favorite book?” as if there’s anything to be found in the answer? Favorite is too big, too much, and too tangled up with “best,” even though it ought to be subjective, and “best” really likes to pretend it isn’t. What if we break it down into more manageable bites: What was your favorite book last month? What’s your favorite book this very second? What was your favorite book when you were 16? 

My favorite book right now is Michelle Ruiz Keil’s Summer in the City of Roses, which I read during a crushing heatwave in the City of Roses. My favorite book last month was Nghi Vho’s perfect The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Last year, when I felt unable to read fiction, it was Chanel Miller’s crushingly grace-filled Know My Name. For the last few years, it’s been Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road, a YA novel about a girl who runs away to find herself.

If you ask what my favorite book is, and I say Tess, I probably can’t count on the title telling you much at all. I can tell you it’s a YA fantasy and watch your face to see how dismissive you get. I can tell you it’s about a girl whose sister is a very successful half dragon, but that’s not really about Tess. Nothing I say, though, is going to bear the weight of decades, the certainty of establishment. Maybe you’ll make an assumption. Maybe it’ll be wrong. Maybe, if the book falls into your hands, you’ll get to enjoy the process of finding out there’s so much more to it.

And that’s excellent

What’s your favorite book right now?

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods.

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