Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Favorite Books

When I go to a party and someone asks what I "do" and I tell them some variation on "I have a PhD in English and try not to waste it entirely," there are two categories of response. One is "oh, I'll have to watch my grammar." I laugh politely at that one. The other is "oh, I never have time to read." I like that one a little better because it gives me a way to say that we make time for what we can't do without.

My favorite response to the what do you "do" answer came when I was still in graduate school. The man who eventually married our friend Miriam said to me "what are you studying in grad school?" I said "English." There was a pause. "Haven't you learned it yet?" he said.

So what do you do when someone asks what your "favorite" book is??? I have various strategies for answering such a question, including picking six off the top of my head, as I did for my blogger profile: Animal Dreams, Love In the Ruins, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Princess Bride.

A strategy that makes more sense is to pick two or three favorites from a specific genre--favorite science fiction books: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Door Into Ocean, Ender's Game.

My favorite way to answer this question now is a strategy I borrowed from my friend Lemming's Christmas letter. She and her husband used to recommend their favorite book of the year. This narrows down the selections to a manageable level, plus you can buy the favorite book of the year for everyone on your list. My favorite book of this past year is Boomsday.

Of course, this strategy necessarily privileges contemporary literature. How can we include favorites from the past? Usually I don't try. There's no need to repeat what thousands of high school English teachers have said before me: To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. One of the purposes of telling other people what your favorite books are is to get them to read those books.

With that purpose in mind, tell me what your favorite books are. I'm the person you know who is most likely to read them.


Anonymous said...

If I get that,"I'll have to watch my grammar," thing one more time, I might just bust....

Recently, I really liked "The Little Friend," by Donna Tarrt. And one of my favorites (I've read it now three times) is "A Confederacy of Dunces," which was introduced to the world by your buddy Walker Percy.

By the by, in your favorite movie, Young Frankenstein, doesn't necromancy ultimately pay? At least for Madeline Kahn?

Jeanne said...

Madeline Kahn (Elizabeth) certainly pays a price in terms of her hairstyle!

Ron Griggs said...

Gosh, there are too many things to comment on here. Maybe I can turn this into a favorite books commentary anyway.

The comment on English ("haven't you learned it, yet") has always led me to contemplate one of my favorite books: The Oxford English Dictionary. We own the two volume tiny print edition that you have to read with a magnifying glass and I can still get sucked along an endless, wandering path through it. But the online edition (oh the wonder of working for a college) is even more seductive. So yes, I suppose when you've read the OED cover to cover, I would consider that you've "learned" English. Hmmph.

In response to the question about my favorite book (or favorite book of late), I often find myself sorting through the mental shelf thinking "well, which one would this person like?" So I recommend The Black Swan by N. N. Taleb to the Chief Investment Officer, Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte to the Spanish professor, or The Icelandic Journals of William Morris to the English professor. It is like I'm the bookstore clerk who has been asked "would you recommend a book for me?"

So I'd rather hear why--in a few words--a book is a favorite. Why is Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy a favorite of mine? Because it captures the essence of the Southern tragedy, where chivalry and racism create a self-aware irony and a desperation in the best of people. It captures that transition from the pre-WWI West to the disillusionment of the modern world, that historic pivotal point that Henry Adams suggests is literally the end of one world and the start of a new one. It captures the sadness of the educated, literary aesthete who knows deep in his heart that he is no more than a minor poet, though his soul is large enough for the talent of a Shakespeare. That's why.

lemming said...

#1 - Pride and Prejudice - I cannot even begin to contemplate how many times I have read this and I adore it and find it new each time.

#2 - Notable American Women, though I confess to only owning the first four volumes. Even better than Benet's.

What's this about "used" to reccomend a book? ;-)

Joe said...

There's a Bill Bryson essay out there which explains why the Statistical Abstract of the United States is one of my favorite books. Open to a random page and contemplate a statistical fact about our country.

Recently, I adored Neil Gaiman's and Charles Vess' _Stardust_. This is the book which I will someday be reading, interspersed with comments of "you're a little excited, maybe we should take a break" and "ahh, there's kissing in this part, you wouldn't like it."

All time? I try to re-read _A Christmas Carol_ every year. There's so much which doesn't reliably get into the dramatized versions.