Saturday, September 13, 2014

Favorite Books, and What They Say About Us (or not)

A recent Facebook trend asks people to list 10 books that have stayed with them. The standard message declares that “they don’t have to be the best or most important books” and that the poster should list the first 10 without thinking too much about them, and not judge or censor the list. There are a few variations on this, as alterations inevitably creep in as the meme gets passed around, much like the proverbial children’s game of telephone. I’ve enjoyed reading the lists posted by my friends. I’ve found some of us share memorable books, and inevitably some friends list books I personally don’t care for, or that left me cold. Of course some of the lists include things I’ve never read or never heard of. To my recollection, a similar chain letter went around about a year ago, and because I posted my list that time, I’ve chosen not to participate this time.

One thing that never occurred to me was to doubt the veracity of other people’s lists. I assume that people followed the instructions and did as I did, listing the first 10 books that came to mind that fit the criteria. However, there seems to be a backlash in some circles, as in this piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. Although I believe Kleinman was trying to be humorous, I was bothered by the implication that classic works of literature couldn’t possibly be anyone’s favorite, and that anyone who claims they are is lying. In the version of the meme that Kleinman refers to, readers are asked to list the “10 books that changed their thinking” which makes her criticism even more puzzling. There is certainly a vast difference between “favorite books” and those that “changed our thinking” in some way, although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

This reminds me a bit of another kerfuffle over reading tastes that appeared in the popular media, Ruth Graham’s Slate piece declaring that adults should be embarrassed to read Young Adult fiction. It’s no secret that YA fiction is hugely popular among adolescents and adults alike, and this article met with an immediate flurry of outrage. One undercurrent I found troubling to the backlash was a derision of those who don’t read YA fiction, and criticism that so-called “classic” or “adult” fiction (and those who read it) are boring and pretentious. This was not present in all the responses to Graham’s article, but it made me uncomfortable enough that I did not involve myself in the discussion at the time. As a person who generally doesn’t read YA fiction, the tone of the conversation was such that I would have felt I needed to justify myself for not doing so, and any justification I might offer might lead to accusations of elitism.

My point is this: read what you want. You don’t need to explain or justify it to anyone. But also recognize that people’s tastes are different, and they gravitate toward different types of books for a variety of reasons. I’m not lying when I say “War and Peace” is one of my favorite books, and I’m not listing it to show off or to try to make myself look smarter than other people. I think it has an undeserved reputation for being boring and ponderous, based on the fact that it’s long, and most people haven’t actually read it. Admittedly, I find some of the battle scenes boring, but it also has some of the best plotting and characterization of anything I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, I recognize that it’s not to everyone’s taste and I don’t expect everyone to want to read it.

Similarly, I’ll take you at your word if you say “The Fault in Our Stars” really touched you, and the Harry Potter series had a big impact on you, and you really loved “Ulysses.” Seeing lists of memorable books posted by my friends on Facebook has been enjoyable and interesting. It’s never occurred to me to view it as a scorecard or IQ test.

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