Monday, July 6, 2015

Favorite Books

Early this afternoon I stood in front of my bookshelves trying to decide what book I wanted to fall asleep to. I don't like to do schoolwork on Sundays, so I ignored my shelf full of rhetoric and composition related books and the prelim studying that they represent. In looking over my books I settled on rereading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 

It's a book that I've read a handful of times, and I figured that since I was familiar with it I wouldn't feel bad falling asleep a few pages in. Plus, on the off-chance that I didn't fall asleep, it's a great book. As I reached for it, I saw that seated next door to it was one of my all-time favorite books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Pulling Guernsey, etc. off the shelf, I realized I haven't read Huck Finn since high school. I mean, I've read a few pages here and there, but I haven't read it cover-to-cover since my senior year in when I was studying for the AP literature test. (If I remember correctly it was a Saturday afternoon and I was in the tub.) I stood there with Guernsey in my hand thinking about how whenever I'm asked what my favorite books are, I invariably bring up Huck Finn but never Guernsey. (I love Guernsey, but I wouldn't put it on the favorites list.) That said, I've read Guernsey probably half a dozen times in the past 2-3 years and Huck Finn none time. This bothered me some, so I decided to look over my books and make two lists:

1. favorite books

2. most read 

Here's what I came up with, and I included in parentheses the number of times I've read each:

(quick caveat, I don't include holy writ in these kinds of lists. I may write another post explaining why some other time)

List 1:
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (3, though all pre-high school graduation)
  • My Name Is Asher Lev (2)
  • The Chosen (10-12)
  • Great Expectations (1.75 - i.e. once abridged, once unabridged)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (6-7)
  • The Western Garden Book (never finished)
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1)
  • Walden (never finished)
  • Stargirl (1)
  • The Screwtape Letters (1)
  • A Rhetoric of Motives (never finished)
  • Ender's Game (too many to count)
  • Silas Marner (1)
  • In the Time of the Butterflies (1)
  • Old Man and the Sea (1)
  • Paradise Lost (started 3 times, quit twice in disgust, finished the third time enthralled)

List 2:
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (6-8)
  • Princess Academy (4-5)
  • The Goose Girl (4-5)
  • Enchantment (6-7)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (6-7)
  • Harry Potter 1, 3, 7 (far too many to count, and that's even ignoring the literal dozens of times I read books 1-4 the late summer of the ruptured spleen)
  • Fablehaven (3)
  • Pride and Prejudice (3 cover-to-cover, dozens of  20-30 page "good parts" readings)
  • Ender's Game (too many to count)
  • The Chosen (10-12)
  • The Westing Game (10-15)

As I compiled these two lists, the disparity struck me. Especially the fact that I include 3 books that I've never even finished on the favorites list. You would think (or at least I would) that my favorite books would be the ones that I read most often. But with the exception of The Chosen, To Kill a Mockingbird and Ender's Game they aren't. But why?

My first thought is that my list of favorite books is just a demonstration of me being pretentious. In other words, I don't want to admit that Princess Academy is one of my favorite books when it's so far beneath the literary merits of Hemingway. I think there may be something to that, even if it's at least partially subconscious, but then again, I'm not sure I buy it as a complete explanation either. Stargirl makes the favorites list, after all, and I wouldn't say that, from an objective standpoint, its literary merits are any better or more respected than Princess Academy. So while there probably a bit of pretension here, I don't think that's all of it.

My second thought is that list 2 is full of books that I really like, but that are a bit easier to read. I think there's something to that. It would explain the preponderance of YA books on the list. Also, considering that my chosen line of work involves me reading quite a few moderately difficult texts (made difficult by the complexity of the content, the dryness of the prose, or, worst of all, both), so when I'm home and want to relax in the evening or on a Sunday afternoon, I don't want to have to think too hard. I think this is a sound explanation, but it doesn't feel quite complete. Mostly because I don't exclusively read easy-to-read books. If all I wanted was an escape, there would be more Agatha Christie and John Grisham novels. (I say "more" because there are a few) But I still read the more intellectually taxing stuff as well. For example, in the past couple months I've reread A Tale of Two Cities and Everything Is Illuminated. While neither of those is all that difficult, I wouldn't put them on the level of YA lit, nor would I call them escapist. Along these same lines, I'm currently working my way through Moby Dick, and given that I've been at it since January, there is some credence to the idea that I do avoid the difficult.

Looking back over my list of favorites I come to a third thought. The favorite books all impacted me very deeply emotionally. Reading them left an indelible mark the way I view the world, life, and humanity as a whole. With each and every one of them I can recount distinct experiences where I set the book down - either in the middle of reading or once I'd finished - and felt compelled reevaluate my life. Great Expectations gave me the striking example of Joe Gargery and made me want to be more kind, forgiving, and ultimately more loving of everybody. Old Man and the Sea gave me a fierce desire to work harder at my goals and find satisfaction in that hard work even if no one else noticed. Stargirl really shook me up and made me think more about authenticity and the performance of identity. In many ways I'm still grappling with the thoughts and emotions Stargirl and Leo awoke in me. In fact, in many if not all cases with these books, even though I haven't read many of them for years, I continue to ponder the paradigm-shifting experiences I've had with them. When I'm out on midnight wanders about town or just laying in the grass contemplating the stars I'll often think about the plants, learned about in the Western Garden Book, that I hope will fill future gardens, or I'll think about Silas Marner and the relative merits of money vs family in making one happy. However, in the case of many/most of these books, coming to these world-altering ideas required a heavy emotional investment. In the Time of the Butterflies I remember distinctly being a difficult but rewarding read. Often reading these books wasn't a pleasant experience, but that difficulty is a large part of what made it possible for me to come to these moments where I had to set the book down and really contemplate how I needed to change my understanding of life, the universe, and everything. I love and appreciate these books because they've shaped in large part my life up to this point which is why they're favorites.

So I guess what I've come to is I don't have to feel bad about not rereading over and over the books that I list as my favorites. In many cases they're favorites because of the impact they had on the way I view the world and my place in it, but perhaps their kairotic moment of deeply affecting my life has come and gone. That's not to say I won't ever revisit them. In fact with many of them I hope to in the near future. But in the mean time I'm going to go reread about an epistolary novel about post WWII Guernsey and it's charming residents.


It's now several hours later. I've just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society once again. It was just as lovely as I'd remembered. If you haven't read it, you should.


  1. I can definitely now see how I separate my lists like this too. Also, I have easily read The Westing Game upwards of 15 times. How does it never get old?

  2. How is Les Mis not on a list here? Loved this post. Need to read the Potato Pie Society...

  3. I am reading Silas Marner right now. Are you aware that I almost never read books twice. The exceptions: Ender's Game, A Wrinkle in Time, 20 Ways to Lose Your Best Friend, a couple Harry Potters, and the Holy Scriptures.

    Also, if you haven't read The Joy Luck Club, I recommend it.