Favourite books?

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.


6 thoughts on “Favourite books?

  1. Quite a while ago you mentioned that you were reading Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. I was looking for something to read so I picked it up and enjoyed it immensely. It was quite different from anything I’d have picked out for myself.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say my favorite book is Nabokov’s Speak Memory.

  2. For whatever reasons I just haven’t gotten around to Lord of the Rings yet, though I’ve gotten closer since they’re now on my shelves. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series is one I’d be able to read from anywhere.

  3. D.A. Miller opens a great essay on Jane Austen by talking about how he always needs to return to early Austen (P & P, S & S, etc.) when he’s ill — it’s something about the tidy nature of that world that’s comforting when he’s feverish.

  4. All very interesting. About Austen, I will say that Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility are highly relaxing (esp. the first two), and I use them in the same way as Miller. They should be on my list, as should Austen’s juvenilia. But Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park are way too fraught for me. I love them, but I wouldn’t dare read them sick.

  5. What do I read – and read again? (Chosing from among twentieth-century favourites.) When I was, maybe, twelve years, I read John Buchan’s Memory Hold the Door. I’ve kept the volume through all the moves and changes in my life. It was for me at that early age a window on the adult world. It’s supposedly Buchan’s autobiography, but really he wrote – and with such affection and such insight – primarily about others. And since he knew every one in Edwardian England and in the years between the Wars, he wrote about famous people. I thought of myself as moving into that world. I didn’t notice that he wrote only about men. (In a way I have moved into that world. I write about it).

    I recently reread Memory Hold the Door. (The same copy I read as a child.) It’s splendid. It is just very fine.

    A book by a woman about men? One that I reread? Usula Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I know that each human being in this novel is supposed to be both male and female, sometimes the one and sometimes the other. But Le Guin doesn’t convince on that point. Everyone’s male. Le Guin can only write about males and small girls. The great feature of the book is that it’s about friendship – enduring, aching friendship. It’s like the Buchan in that respect. Friendship and politics. Not many good books today on that topic.

    And a book by a man about a woman? The book is C.S. Lewis’s late novel, Till We Have Faces. The woman is the Philosopher Queen, the narrator. I so love her! The book’s convincingly set in the ancient world. Not Athens. Macedonia, I suppose. You don’t think of Lewis as being able to write about women, do you?

  6. Pingback: Favourite characters « Hopeless but not serious

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