Gabrielle Zevin On Why It’s Hard To Name A Favorite Book

Today’s post this month’s featured author, Gabrielle Zevin | @GabrielleZevin

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Gabrielle Zevin

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.

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About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

3 Responses to Gabrielle Zevin On Why It’s Hard To Name A Favorite Book

  1. Ally Lang April 9, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    I have just discovered your site and I love it. This book was on my list so I am excited to see what others think, and thrilled with the positive reviews. I blog at northsidefour.blogspot.com and so much of what I write about is books; I always love to discover others who find the same compulsion to write about what they read!

  2. Davida Chazan April 12, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Over on Goodreads there is a discussion board on just this topic (connected with the upcoming Q&A with Gabrielle). I tried with all my might to list my favorite books, but they change all the time. Right now, Fikry is one of my favorites.

  3. prestamos April 14, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    You could definitely see your skills within the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

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