Two good friends, Jamie and Garrett, alumni of Durham Academy, which is where I work, recently came up with the idea to convene an alumni book club. This idea is hardly revolutionary in and of itself, though it should be fun, as it always is when interesting people get together to quasi-discuss literature. My contribution to the idea was to call the book club “My Favorite Book.” The premise is simple: each book the group reads will be the favorite book of the evening’s host. It will no doubt add an interesting dynamic to the experience, for as you read, you’re continually confronted with the question of why your host picked that particular book. The book becomes a kind of rubric for evaluating the chooser. All book clubs could use the tension born of such scrutiny.
Too bad the process of choosing your favorite book is maddening.
If you care about the decision and what people might think it says about you, the process begins to paralyze you; it’s akin to the embarrassment one feels (or should feel) about being coerced into a public display of affection; part of you might enjoy it, but the exposure will likely make you very self conscious. Your favorite book is a private love affair between you and the author, and revealing it feels unseemly somehow. You also suspect you’re due to be judged for planting this particular intellectual/cultural/psychological flag in the ground and for the unavoidable pretensions such audacity represents.
Favorite books are symbolic and revelatory in ways that other favorite things aren’t. For instance, it’s different from making someone listen to your favorite song or album (playlist?). Reading someone’s favorite book requires real time and energy, and it’s easy to imagine someone reaching the end of your choice and thinking, “Really? He likes this better than To Kill a Mockingbird? What an idiot.”
What is worse, in my case, the people attending the “My Favorite Book” Club are people I really want to impress, and I feel that pressure pushing my selection in different directions. Should I pick something cool and hip, like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (is that book still cool and hip?). Something from the McSweeney’s posse (i.e., something young people find cool and hip)? Something witty and ironic (Vonnegut or something British)? Something intellectual (L’Etranger)? Something canonical? (“Pass the pretzels, folks — time to dive into Madame Bovary!) I grow old, I grow old….
And finally, what constitutes a “favorite?” How can you be sure it’s the one? I remember less than 10% of the fiction I’ve read over the last three decades; surely there are some favorites lost in the ether. Many of the books I’d list as favorites are books I’ve read in the last few years, which makes me suspicious. Most of these books haven’t been with me long enough; we hardly know each other. Is The Swiss Family Robinson actually my favorite book?
But enough. In honor of Rob Fleming, here’s my top-five list of favorite novels.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke): Harry Potter for people who like books.
The Rotters’ Club (Jonathan Coe): a coming-of-age story in 1970s England. Hilarious and moving. Gandalf’s Pikestaff!
The Magus (John Fowles): a mind-blowing journey. Each time I read it, it reveals secrets.
Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) [all-time favorite]: For a certain period of my life, I would give a copy of this book to my girlfriends (who are now, not surprisingly, all ex-girlfriends). As I said, pretensions revealed. Still an amazing novel, though, which Roth published at age 26…and promptly won the National Book Award for fiction. If you’ve ever felt on the outside looking in (and what adolescent hasn’t?), this novel is for you.
Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut): Every college student needs to read Vonnegut.
There it is. Judge…and be judged.