At one point in my novel,The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the titular character asks, “A question I’ve thought about a great deal is why it is so much easier to write about the things we dislike/hate/acknowledge to be flawed than the things we love.” Not ALL of A.J.’s sentiments echo my own, but this is a question I ask myself, too.
From the moment you publish your first novel, people (reviewers, interviewers, readers, but also colleagues, friends, and even those who have casually heard that you write books) want you to tell them your favorite books. In the last ten years, I’d estimate I have answered the question over one thousand times. Perhaps, the only question I have been asked more often is, “Where do your ideas come from?”
Despite the fact that I know with certainty I will be asked the “favorites” question, I have never gotten good at answering it. My mind goes blank, as if I have never read a book before in my life. The titles that pop into my head are often nonsensical books that I am absolutely certain are not my favorites. Or the books that rise to the surface of my brain are utter clichés, and even if they are wonderful books, I find I don’t want to name them. Do you really need another person to tell you her favorite book is, for example, The Catcher in the Rye? Out of desperation, I will occasionally spit out the cliché, but later, I always feel guilty about all the books I didn’t name. As a writer who has written a few hits and a decent number of flops, I always want to name the lesser known book or author.
At this stage in my life, I’m not certain I even have favorites. My relationship (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) to books is more complicated than a bilateral system of “favorite” or “not favorite.” For instance, there are the books I loved as a child. When I think of reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, I am immediately transported to my parents’ scratchy, beige wool couch. It’s snowing outside, but it’s warm in my house. Are those peanut butter cookies in the oven? My love for this book is about the book, which is wonderful, but it is also about my nostalgia for when I first read it.
And then there are books that weren’t necessarily fun reads, but were enormously instructive to me as a writer. I think of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Both books are inventive structurally and stylistically, but they aren’t necessarily page-turners. However, they were important books in my development as a writer because they suggested new possibilities for my own prose writing. Despite the fact that I’ve only read these books a handful of times each, I think about and reference them often.
Ironically, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book all about favorites and how the books we read define our lives. I love asking the “favorites” question and I love hearing people answer it, even when I suspect they’re lying. “Really, you’re favorite book is The Gulag Archipelago? Do tell.” I relate to the impulse to, if not exactly lie, to want to put the best face possible on one’s reading life. I understand the desire to name titles that aren’t clichés, that reveal a sense of humor, and that make one appear well–read. I tell you, it’s not easy.