The Painful Anxiety of Playing Favorites

The Painful Anxiety of Playing Favorites

The Painful Anxiety of Playing Favorites

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This weekend I met with a neighbor who’d found out in a casual conversation at the mailboxes that I work in publishing and am a writer, and as a lifelong reader and journaler herself she wanted to get together to talk about books.

As we were setting up our meeting later via text, she sent one that filled me with dread: I can’t wait to find out what your favorite book is!

This is such a frequent question posed to authors—and it shouldn’t be a hard one. So many of us came into this field because of a profound love of books and reading, and many will point to the one book that changed their life, or turned them on to a love of books, or made them want to be a writer.

But I can never name one. Not because I don’t have beloved stories, but because asking me to pick a single one is like asking me to pick my favorite food, or outfit, or pet. I love so many of them, in different ways, at different times, for different reasons.

Asking me to pick a single favorite book is like asking me to pick my favorite food, or outfit, or pet. I love so many of them, in different ways, at different times, for different reasons.

For instance, some of the formative books of my childhood were the Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy series. And yet today mystery is not my primary genre of interest. 

I have gone through phases where I devoured anything Stephen King wrote, or Jennifer Weiner, or Elizabeth Berg, or Nadia Hashimi, or Pat Conroy. All of those stories affected me and stick with me, but are they my favorites? Of all time? More than anything else I’ve ever read? It depends when you ask me.

Add to that the unspoken but very real pressure on writers to name important, serious, literary stories—when those may or may not actually be to their personal taste. Ask me my favorite movies, for instance, and the spread includes the bromance I Love You, Man, as lowbrow a comedy as you might imagine, but I adore it and have seen it probably literally thirty or more times (and I snicker like an adolescent boy every…single…time). What if your favorite story is more general popular fare, like Bridget Jones’ Diary, or the Twilight books, or Fifty Shades of Gray, or anything from the James Patterson juggernaut? How many of us would be willing to own that among other writers or in a public forum?

And what if your favorite books aren’t stories at all, really, but more prescriptive nonfiction that deeply affected your life in some way? I can list a generous handful of those off the top of my head too, from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, which in no small part set me on the road to my career as an editor; to Theodore I. Rubin’s Compassion and Self-Hate, which I reread regularly whenever the inner demons threaten to derail me; to The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus, which helped improve my relationships with people; to Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash, which changed how I relate to my dogs.

I can’t name a single favorite book. I love so many of them—the ones that draw me in, take me outside my own experience, or resonate so deeply with it that it feels as if the author is eavesdropping on my life. The ones that make me think, make me feel, that stick with me long after I’ve turned the final page. And those are legion. But to mark any of them as my enduring standout favorite feels inaccurate and exclusionary to me.

How to Answer the Unanswerable Question

When I am asked that dreaded question now in interviews or on panels or by other authors, I tend to default to what may sound like a copout: that I have read and worked on so many it’s impossible to pick one, and that I wouldn’t want to play favorites even if I could, considering that I work with many authors directly.

And that’s the truth, for the most part.

But it’s also the simple soundbite answer of the deeper and more amorphous truth: that the idea of being pinned down to hoisting only one or two books onto a pedestal gives me the heebie-jeebies. I worry that I may have left out so many stories I’ve found affecting.

If you too struggle with naming a single favorite book, then my rephrasing anytime I’m asked may help when you’re faced with this Sophie’s choice of a question (agh, Sophie’s Choice—yet another beautiful, affecting “favorite”!). I respond as if it were asked the way I wish it had been: “What books are you loving lately or right now?”

When I’m asked about my favorite book, I respond as if the question were asked the way I wish it had been: “What books are you loving lately or right now?”

And then I answer it honestly, without worry about what it may indicate about me, the way I proudly own how much I love I Love You, Man. Our tastes don’t always line up with what the literary world deems worthy—for instance, I’m currently forcing myself through a critically acclaimed bestseller that may in fact wind up being a DNF for me. That’s valid, regardless of other people’s evaluation of it…as valid as my deep and abiding love for Jonathan Tropper’s popular novel This Is Where I Leave You, a book I could reread ad nauseam.

Years ago when I was performing and writing with a comedy troupe I was part of in Atlanta, I wrote a sketch about an aggressive market researcher accosting a woman shopping in a mall who agrees to answer a few survey questions that grow increasingly intrusive and personal, culminating in the researcher asking her, “In the event of a fire, if you could only save one of your children, which one would it be?” that throws her into a complete dither.

I think even then I understood the futility of trying to choose a single favorite of anything. Selecting only one feels like a grave disservice to the myriad of books that have had a deep impact on me. There is no right choice. But also (the dire consequences of the question in my sketch aside, of course) there is no wrong choice. Your favorites are your favorites because they’re your favorites and that’s enough. They need no further justification to anyone; nor do you have to justify that’s it’s not a static, never-changing list.

That’s the beauty of story and the bounty of them we have to choose from. You may amass any number of favorites over the course of your life, each of which may affect you for varying reasons at various times. Or you may be loyal to just one enduring favorite you can easily point to, for particular reasons.

What Makes a Book a Favorite?

My friend had no such hesitation in choosing her favorite story. In fact part of the reason we got together was that she had loaned me hers, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, because she wanted not only to share it with me, but to hear my impressions and compare how it impacted each of us.

And that, to me, is the hallmark of the stories I consider special. Which ones do I want to share with other people? Which ones do I think they may find as moving as I do, or as affecting or thought provoking or relevant? Which ones do I want to talk about and dissect with them? That may vary from person to person. I’ve never passed along The Handmaid’s Tale to my mom, for instance, as I don’t think it would resonate with her, but I don’t hesitate to send her other books I think she would like.

Here’s what my neighbor’s question did do. It turned me on to a book and an author I had wanted to read and had not yet. It deepened my understanding of my friend and her background and her taste. Our conversation wound up encompassing many other books, both of us scribbling down recommendations to add to our reading lists. And it led to what I thought was going to be a relatively brief coffee date turning into four hours of some of the most interesting, intimate and wide-ranging discussion I’ve had in some time, and a new friendship.

Which all started with a book.

And right now, that makes The Namesake one of my current favorites too.

Writer/reader friends, I hope you’ll dive into the comments with your thoughts—I’m so interested to hear how other word nerds feel about this subject. Do you have a single favorite book? If so, why is it your favorite? Or does this question fill you with the same anxiety I feel at hearing it—and how do you answer it?

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36 Comments. Leave new

  • Wow. This was a permission slip I didn’t know I needed! That has always been a dreaded question for me. I can’t even fathom how many books I’ve read in my life, yet when the question is asked my mind instantly goes blank! Talking about books is one of my favourite things to do, but ranking them seems to erase coherent thought. This is such a great reframe. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Mine too, Sam! It feels like such pressure, I just blank out. 🙂 And your point about ranking resonates too–I have a friend who, every time we see a movie, wants me to rate it on a scale, and it causes me great anguish. It’s too subjective, there are too many factors, and I can’t assign a concrete value to something that feels so nuanced and personal. But like you, I will sit there and dissect it for hours (to my husband’s chagrin). Thanks for weighing in!

      Reply
  • I also love many books for different reasons. My story: I had just moved into a neighborhood, and one of the first questions my neighbor asked: Do you read? We stood in our driveway for about an hour talking about books. She invited me to block’s bookclub. I found new friends and new authors I never would’ve read on my own. Here’s to books and bookish friends.

    Reply
    • What a great story! Books are the great connector–story of any kind, really. I have lots of good conversations about books, and also movies, TV shows. To me it’s so interesting and revealing to learn what affects someone, and why. And then there’s just the sheer fun of swimming around in the story and figuring out how the storyteller did it. I join you in raising a glass to the wonderfully illuminating, uniting power of stories. <3

      Reply
  • I’m a Boomer and will never forget the impact of Catcher in the Rye. It crashed through my teenage years like a meteor and taught me the most valuable lesson of my writing life:

    Be real.

    Reply
    • Funny you say that–in doing some research lately for an article I’m working on, Catcher in the Rye has come up a lot and I realize I am long overdue for a reread of it. I love coming back to stories I loved when I was younger and seeing if they still affect me the same way now, if they hold up as well as I remember. Thanks for the prod, Anmarie!

      Reply
  • Gilbert Corliss
    February 1, 2024 1:55 pm

    I can’t say what my “all-time favorite book” might be. As you say, there are so many. But I can tell you the name of the book that ignited the fire of reading in me. I was 6 or 7 years old. I was tired of reading “Children’s Classics” and started wondering the stacks of the library in Torrance CA, and I came across a small fantasy novel called Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning. That book started the journey that has gone on for 66 years, so far. My second book to read was Black Beauty, and the rest is a glorious, eclectic mix of every genre ever written.

    Reply
    • Do not know Green Smoke! And now feel compelled to track it down. 🙂 Have you read it since, as an adult? I like to reexamine past favorites through the lens of my adult self–and my editor self too, actually, and analyze them. I loved Black Beauty too, though–my sister is a horse person, and always has been, and this was a favorite of hers. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • Rebecca Rosenberg
    February 1, 2024 2:06 pm

    One thing I love about writing is reading genres and subjects I have not before. So now I’ve been reading a dozen novels about prohibition and speakeasies and enjoying the different angles they are written from! Also reading psychological thrillers for pacing and reveal! I think it’s a great bonus for being an author, reading piles of new books– my favorite book of the moment is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. And discovering the new (to me) technique of presenting plot points out of chronological sequence to disguise the outcome. Brilliant and sneaky technique that I don’t plan to use, but appreciate.

    Reply
    • Such a great point, Rebecca. I like to read outside my usual genres too–especially as a teacher of writing, where it lets me analyze lots of different types of story, and find the common threads of great story. And as you point out, certain genres are great for teaching specific craft elements: fantasy for world building; suspense, thriller, and mystery for suspense, tension, pacing, structure; upmarket fiction for character development, etc.

      I keep hearing about The Silent Patient–putting it on the TBR list right now. Thanks!

      Reply
  • Jane Glendinning
    February 1, 2024 2:35 pm

    A neighbor asked me this question and I replied that there were so many, there was no way to pick. She shook her head at me, and told me her all-time favorite. This was in the early ’90s and, at the time, I felt like there must be something wrong with me. The same question recently came from someone I had just met. Without thinking, I said, ‘hard question, but it’s usually the one I just read,’ and told her who and what I had recently read, and how much I enjoyed each. We had a good conversation after that.

    Reply
    • Yes! It’s like being in front of an endless sumptuous buffet and being told you must choose only one food. I cannot. I love so many in different ways! And you’re right that often it’s the most recent I–maybe many of us–tend to think of first. When I was an actor, common wisdom said that agents would send to casting calls the actors they’d most recently seen in a role or worked with, a driving reason to work as much as possible (and not at all unlike the publishing biz, I have come to see).

      But you’re right–it’s the conversations that result that’s part of what makes story so meaningful, how they lead to connection, sharing, understanding, insight. I never see any reason to stratify or judge people for what they like and don’t–or whether they can name a “favorite.” Tastes are so personal, and people are so different. Thanks for the insights, Jane.

      Reply
  • Well, Tiffany, at least for me, you covered it all in your post. My favorite books for 2023 are Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Gamus and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Of all time? Well, like you, that depends on the time and space. Yet, in the blink of an eye, if you asked me which plays I favored, I’d choose tragedies and comedies by William Shakespeare.

    And since I often have book conversations like this one with women, I’m beginning to wonder if Anne, not her husband, wrote his plays. Ciao!

    Reply
    • Adding Hamnet to my TBR! And yes–I can get my mind around naming favorite authors more easily than a favorite book: the ones whose stories consistently speak to me. But even then, I add the caveat that they are one among many favorite authors. I just can’t bear to limit myself to a single one.

      I’ve heard the Anne Shakespeare theory before–there are a lot of those that swirl around Shakespeare’s works and whether he actually wrote them all. “Copyright” being what it was in his time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they were heavily outsourced–maybe he was the James Patterson juggernaut of his time, coauthoring stories with other writers under his vaunted name. 🙂 Thanks for your comment, Rick!

      Reply
  • Deborah Sword
    February 1, 2024 3:48 pm

    Beautifully written, Tiffany. What your post brought up for me is the evolution of my reading over the years. Books mark my rites of passage, the expansion of thoughts through travel that introduced me to new friendships and experiences, maturing taste forced on me from formal education, and learning more about emotions. Writing also changed how I read. Each change in my life and continual learning exposed new interests, which led to different books. A favourite book is a reflection of the reader as much as it is of the book or the author. I rarely reread books. I’m rarely the person who loved that book the first time I read it. I remember my then self by recalling her reaction to the book when I read it back then. Thanks for reminding me of books I’ve loved.

    Reply
    • I love every word of your comment, Deborah. I can relate to the books we love most reflecting so much about ourselves and our evolution–maybe that’s a big part of the role they play in our lives, the way a favorite song or place or memory lives in your mind as this sanctified thing, but if you revisit it, something’s missing–not because it changed, but because you have. Books are both the agent of change and the marker of it.

      I’m rarely a rereader either–except when I’m deliberately analyzing a book (which I generally like to do only with those I really liked or loved). Thanks for sharing your lovely thoughts–they hit a chord.

      Reply
  • I agree that it’s a hard question to answer, and my mind usually goes blank.
    Of the more recent novels I’ve read, I’ve been most inspired by the structure and wit of The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. In recent non-fiction, I recommend The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (paired with its playlist on Spotify) for fun insight into storytelling in song.

    Reply
  • An impossible question to answer, as much as “What’s your favorite song?” It’s easier to answer what book am I loving lately, or, what books had the most impact on you?

    Reply
  • I change the question.” I don’t have a favorite, but the book I’ve reread most often is Thornton Wilder’s THEOPHILUS NORTH.” I explain briefly what I liked about it, and suggest that they might enjoy it.

    Then I ask them what their favorite book is and why, and I listen actively for a while.

    Reply
    • Oh, I love that way of answering, Bob–and the conversation your follow-up question must engender. And I’m looking up Theophilus North now–I know Wilder (I’m a former actor, and what self-respecting thespian doesn’t?), but never heard of this novel.

      Nice to see you here!

      Reply
  • Lisa Bodenheim
    February 2, 2024 11:56 am

    Like you and so many here, I have no single favorite book. As a teen, Louisa May Alcott’s books started me on my writing journey. My reading was eclectic and continues to be so. I’m grateful for blogs like this, about books and writing, where I can add to my TBR pile!

    My most recent favorite is Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I finished it earlier this week and I’m still pondering about her characters’ lives and her wonderful use of timeline jumps.

    Reply
    • I tried Little Women several times as a kid, and just couldn’t get into it–no idea why. My dirty secret is that I still haven’t read it–though I liked the Greta Gerwig film adaptation. (I know, heresy…) You are far from the only friend I know who loves it, though, so maybe I should revisit it–along with Watership Down, another childhood DNF that I’ve heard raves about. Eclectic is a great word! That describes my reading habits too.

      Adding Sea of Tranquility to my TBR pile–thank you!

      Reply
  • Atlanta? Comedy troupe? Writing and performing? That might explain a lot. Having moved in and out of Atlanta a couple of times between ’75 and ’89 I was introduced to the writing of one of the city’s favorite sons – Lewis Grizzard. With titles like ‘They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat’ it’s hard to ignore his work.

    Getting around to your point, I’ve found for me it’s not so much the genre, or the author, but an interesting title that gets my attention. Lewis actually had a quote for that idiosyncrasy, “There’s no such thing as being too Southern”. As a Georgia girl you know that’s right.

    Reply
    • I always hesitate to reveal the comedy and improv background–it’s as likely to elicit eye rolls as interest. 🙂 We would have cohabited in Atlanta during that time! And yes, Grizzard was a local hero, and he did indeed have great titles. (Like Erma Bombeck, also a master of the catchy title.)

      And once upon a time I might have said there’s no such thing as too Southern, but age, perspective, and world developments have changed my mind on that. I think there may very well be such a thing. 🙁

      Reply
    • Garry LaFollette
      February 5, 2024 3:43 am

      Lewis Grizzard . . . I lived in The Big Peach for a time in the late 1980’s. Back then it seemed the two things a newcomer had to do was the laser show at Stone Mountain and read Grizzard.

      Reply
  • Garry LaFollette
    February 5, 2024 3:40 am

    I don’t even begin to know what my favorite ANYTHING is. Everything I value is anchored in some part of me, or some point in my life. Any answer I give off the cuff speaks more to which part or point comes to the fore at the time I’m asked. Kaleidoscopic in the extreme. To borrow from Walt Whitman, we are multitudes.

    Your post, and Marilyn and Jane’s replies all mentioned fielding the question from neighbors and the doors opened by the conversations that followed. To offer a spin from a different setting and established relationships, this past December an employee of mine in his forties who’d gone dormant as a reader since his twenties has reconnected to that part of himself and was seeking recommendations from around the office. I took his question seriously and promised a thought out answer in a few days. Turned into a lengthy email.

    During the time he spent waiting, speculation on the books that I would mention became conversation fodder between him and a couple employees who’ve known me longer and better. They all had pronounced ideas about what I’d suggest to him. When he said ‘I know Garry will recommend a western’ they were dismissive because they all know that that isn’t a genre I gravitate to.

    After I sent my recommendations he took considerable satisfaction in showing the email which had Larry McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove’ at the top of the list. His anticipation of the direction I’d go in was born less of our having talked books in the past, but of conversations about other topics and the slices of each other’s personalities we knew best.

    As much of a cliche ‘favorite books are like old friends’ can be, there is an element of truth in it. Just as we form friendships across a diverse spectrum of personalities, with each providing a space for a portion of who we are, books offer many similar rewards. I led off that email with a suggestion anchored in existing connections, but the best conversations that flowed from it were the more out of left field inclusions and some of the books I was surprised to know he’d read recently. Discovering books that resonate with someone illuminates who they are and expands how we perceive them.

    And really, isn’t that what the question is about? ‘What is your favorite book?’ can be less a question about books and more about knowing someone in new ways.

    Reply
    • What a thoughtful and insightful comment, Garry. Yes, the books we love are such a reflection of who we are, and I think you’re right–we often ask for that reason or with that intention. I’m mindful of how often I’d sidle over to the bookshelf in a boyfriend’s house (heaven forbid there wasn’t one) and see what he had on there…and draw conclusions accordingly. 🙂 I love how your coworkers speculated on what you might pick, and how your list revealed who knew you best…!

      The common denominator of so many of these comments is the connections and conversations that result from talking about favorite books, which to me is the best thing about trying to name some. Thanks for this interesting, thought-provoking comment!

      Reply
  • Renita Bradley
    February 18, 2024 5:29 pm

    So many times I’ve gone to author book-signing events and heard this question. Each time I asked myself how would I answer this question and I had nothing. Glad to know it’s not just me, and thanks for providing a good response.

    Reply
  • I’m with you on This is Where I Leave You!!

    Reply

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