I’ve thought for a long time that people lie when asked their favourite books. I usually do, and I bet my experience is general. I lie because I don’t know what the question means. Does it mean the books that I think are the best? Or, of the best, those that I particularly enjoy? Should I try for a list that includes representative examples from various genres and periods? Should I pick a book typical of an author by whom I’ve read everything? Now that I think of it, I don’t exactly lie. It’s just that in one mood my answer might constitute a list of Shakespeare plays, and in another mood, Plato’s dialogues. Or the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse.
But this morning, responding to a post on Meg’s blog, I realized that a better, more honest answer might come in response to a different question: to what books do I turn when I am sick, or unhappy? It wouldn’t produce a list of favourites (no Nabokov!), but, then, there is no list of favourites. It does, however, produce a revealing list, which is what the original question seeks to elicit.
So what do I read – and read again and again — when I am at my most lowest and most fragile? It’s a short list, and it is characterized by a cast of naiveté.
1. Marchette Chute’s The Innocent Wayfaring, than which a sweeter, charminger lighter, less angst-ridden book has never been written.
2. E.F. Benson’s Lucia books. I am a full-blown Luciaphile. These books delight me, and have no other effects.
3. Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel. I’m not sure what grabs me about this book. I like all Heinlein’s juveniles (as much as I dislike all his adult sci fi, which is a lot) but this one stands out from the rest. It is heroic, innocent, and, like the other things on this list, profoundly non-annoying.
4. The Lord of the Rings. I don’t need to say much about this, except that I am always happy to read it even though (a) I know it almost by heart, and (b) I would have to criticize it strenuously if I ever taught it. I like the books in order of appearance, one better than two, two better than three. And while the other books on this list I usually read from front to back, these I can pick up at any page.