Why is it so hard to pick a favourite?

I was recently asked about my favourite book. I don’t know why but this question always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Part of me really believes that it is unfair to pick a favourite – as if the books were going to be offended when they weren’t picked. But it isn’t only that. It depends on the questioner. For example, if a pupil asks should I say something they are likely to have heard of or stick with what has become my stock answer, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. If I say that, do people think that I’m just trying to one-up them by picking something not particularly well-known and Russian.

When I say this has become my stock answer, I do not mean that I do not love this book. I do. And I would recommend it to anyone. I have read it a number of times but the last time was at least ten years ago. Has there really been nothing in the last ten years of reading to knock it off the top spot?

In fact, I haven’t really thought about this at all. Most of the things I would say are my favourite things are from a long time ago, when I suppose we were more likely to be sitting in the pub and debating the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Life (my favourite film) and Casablanca (My husband’s favourite). More likely that someone would say top ten albums from Manchester or whatever. (Obviously The Stone Roses debut would come top of that list and there would be no Oasis.)

As a result I have a top ten novels list which is as follows:

  1. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulkagov.
  2. Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood.
  3. The History of the World in 10 and a half Chapters – Julian Barnes.
  4. Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh.
  5. Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter.
  6. Dancer from the Dance – Andrew Holleran.
  7. A Disaffection – James Kelman.
  8. Strange Meeting – Susan Hill.
  9. The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger.
  10. The Life of Pi – Yann Martell.

All of these novels I have read more than once and some I have studied or taught. I can think of a number of books that I could place on this list that I have read more recently (The City and the Pillar – Gore Vidal, The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides, The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, for example). Putting aside the issue of what would come off the list, if these books were added could I be sure they would stand the test of time? I must admit I don’t tend to re-read books as often as I used to but there is little more annoying then returning to a book or film that you really enjoyed at the time to discover it isn’t how you remember it. (Recently, Pretty in Pink played at our local cinema – one of my favourite films when I was a teenager. I think I made the right decision in not going to see it although I was tempted. I would hate to be disappointed in it. It would be like losing an old friend.) Of course, I am over thinking it and perhaps having a favourite book really isn’t that important. Still, I know I make judgements based on these things. And if it does come up in the pub or the classroom, I want to have the answer ready.

The other thing that I notice now, is the lack of genre fiction. No detective fiction. No science fiction. No fantasy. Although plenty of magic realism. Part of this is due to reading series of books. Which Discworld novel would you pick out of what is a thoroughly excellent series? Which Rebus novel? Which from Douglas Adams? Or George R. R. Martin. But it is also true that I read detective fiction and fantasy particularly as a break from literary fiction. It wasn’t intentional to not include them and perhaps it was unconscious snobbery that caused me to not include any.

So has this got me any nearer to answering the question? Not really. I tend to hedge my bets. Maybe give the top three books. Ponder briefly what impression I’ve just given of myself. Hope it is vaguely similar to the impression that I hoped to give.

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