I’m totally judging you based on your favorite book

When (non-writing) people find out I’m a writer, one of the first questions they usually ask (right after something along the lines of how I plan to make money) is what kind of books I write. When I say literary fiction I’m usually met with a blank stare and I end up trying to explain:

“It’s general fiction. I tend to write stories about families.”

“I want to write the type of stories you probably read in English classes.”

“It’s not fantasy or women’s literature or mystery or anything like that. It’s just everyday stuff.”

These all fail for obvious reasons: they are too general, they discredit the work I’m doing, they describe it for what it isn’t. At this point I usually start offering the titles of the books I’m reading at that moment (and I seem incapable of reading fewer than five at any given time), but people rarely have heard of them. Then comes the killer question.

“So what’s your favorite book?”

I never have any clue how to answer this question. First, this question is one that begs a recommendation, but I’d venture a guess that the average reader has different taste than I do. I avoid bestsellers—not because I feel that something successful is somehow tainted of worth but because I’ve rarely enjoyed books I pulled from the bestsellers shelf. There have been a few (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Wicked, The Glass Castle) but more often I read a few pages only to find that nothing entices me.

The second reason I find this question so hard is because I hate to reveal something I like only to have someone else hate it. Yeah, yeah, I know. We can’t all like the same stuff, but I get too worried that people will judge me based on what I find good (and not only good but amazing). If you tell me your favorite book is Twilight, yeah, I’m going to judge you, so I can only assume you’re doing the same to me.

Because, really, the type of literature we enjoy says a lot about who we are—even if I’m not always sure exactly what it says. I’m reading some Amy Hempel right now and I just love it, but I also love The Abhorsen Trilogy, a YA fantasy series. I love the experimental form in Carole Maso’s Ava, but I also love Fitzgerald’s more traditional The Great Gatsby. And I certainly can’t pick a favorite. So to the man on the airplane reading a trade paperback I might say I like The Wheel of Time, or The Kite Runner (which I actually hated). To my cousin asking for recommendations of Facebook I suggest some of the less-dense literary books I enjoy: Middlesex, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When my super-religious friend asks what books I’ve enjoyed lately I’m sure to mention only books that present her religion in a positive light and not any Bertrand Russell.

Partially this is because of what I said about: It’s hard for me to just pick one favorite, or even a top five list (which I see as different from my desert island list). But it’s also because I want to paint myself in a certain light to certain people. I’m certainly not going to admit my love for YA in a group of literary fiction writers (except, I just did—but I assure you, I substituted YA for a more embarrassing genre) but I’m also not going to gush about how I love Hempel’s use of negative space my grandparents (who prefer lighter reads).

So how do you handle this question? Do you go for all honest all the time or do you tweak your answers depending on the group you’re with?

12 Comments

  • tanya debuff says:

    My favorite book changes all the time, and I usually tell people that. Some of my favorites I might throw out, though, are The Red Badge of Courage (HEY! it’s a great book and I heart Stephen Crane a whole lot, and he taught me about symbolism. Also, it has a nonfiction feel I like, and you gotta give the guy credit for writing so well about war when he was never in a single battle. Come on!), Her Death by Susanna Sonnenberg (my favorite memoir–I have mommy issues, too), or Gone With the Wind. These are the books that will never go out of my spiel of favorites. Also, I adored Kite Runner, again because it was very memoir-ish.

    • Asa Maria says:

      Tanya, I was not a fan of the Susanna Sonnenberg book eventhough I have HUGE issues with my mother. Did you read The Liar’s Club? That totally worked for me because Mary Karr’s mom was crazier than mine and I found that comforting. I also liked her style of writing more than Sonnenberg who I though came across as whiny. We’re going to have to compare mommy-issie memoirs notes sometime.

      • tanya debuff says:

        for sure! Liar’s Club is another fave. I know some people have said that SS sounds whiny, but I guess either I felt whiny too so I didn’t mind it, or I just didn’t pick up on it. I’m gonna read it this summer again, so it’ll be interesting to see what I think of it.

        • Asa Maria says:

          What about Glass Castle? Someone just recommended it to me. Have you read it?

          • tanya debuff says:

            yes! if you liked Karr you will love this book, Asa! It’s so messed up, but at the same time you can tell it’s written from a long distance, and that it’s written with love. This lady, Jeannette Walls, also came out recently with a sort of fictional memoir of her grandmother or something.

  • Asa Maria says:

    I totally modify my answer depending on who I’m speaking to. Not because I’m embarrassed by what I read (most of you know about my love for quality romance novels) but because talking about your favorite books should be a conversation. I want to connect with the person I’m speaking to, not just give them a list of stuff. I also read from a broad enough spectrum that I have favorite books in just about every genre. When asked “what’s your favorite book?” I usually counter with “Oh, there are so many. What do you like to read?” and then we can talk about books we both love.

    But yeah, I totally judge people by what their favorite books are too.

  • Anna says:

    I definitely tweak my answers depending on who is asking. For instance, if a strange guy on the bus asks me my favorite book, I usually say something like, War and Peace (which I really do love) because that will (I hope)get him to leave me alone. As in your case, I love so many different books and categories of books that I tend to just pick a book I think will be somewhat familiar to the person asking the question. It’s a much easier question to answer than, “what type of poetry do you write?” I don’t write within a specific “type,” and most non-writers don’t understand that, so I try to avoid answering that question if at all possible.

  • Shira Richman says:

    I usually say, “I’m not good under pressure. What’s yours?”

    • Kathryn says:

      That’s another thing: It’s hard to come up with an answer on the spot! I’m good at stalling for an answer, but then I feel sort of silly, like the other person thinks I’ve got no clue.

  • Brian O'Grady says:

    I actually don’t get this question very often. If I’m having a conversation with someone about books or writing we’re not speaking in that kind of broad get-to-know-you language. This is a question I would expect from someone I don’t really know, like a corporate trainer, who doesn’t really give a shit about the answer anyway.

    Either way, no matter who’s asking, it’s Winesburg, Ohio. Same Favorite Book since 1995.

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