Sunday, July 20, 2008

"What's your favourite book?"

God I hate being asked what's my favourite anything, but especially I hate being asked what's my favourite book. It's extremely hard to pinpoint exactly one piece of art, one film, one album, one show, one comic, and especially one book as my definitive favourite. Everybody has a top ten, I like to think, and that number one spot is always in flux based on your mood, your personal history and whatever you've got going on at the moment.

For me, it's even harder when it's about my favourite book. First of all, I have moderately eclectic tastes. I'm not going to say I'm extremely eclectic because I don't read westerns, romances, or fantasy. Or chick lit. There's nothing wrong with any of those fields; I just have no interest in them. I like to read sci-fi, horror, mystery, historical fiction, drama, comedy, whatever.

Secondly, my tastes have changed quite a bit as I've gotten older. I've been reading progressively more difficult stuff since university, starting with my course on James Joyce's Ulysses. I've been trying to read books that challenge me and require active work on my part, critical thinking and all that jazz. But even though my tastes have changed, I still hold in my heart places for books that I read when I was younger and might not be challenging.

Since I don't really read pop fiction as much as I used to (I still keep Stephen King close to the top), most authors I read are not famous or, in most cases, are dead. When someone asks me about my favourite book, I try to search my mental list for the book they might recognize and I say that one. More often than not, that book is either Michael Crichton's Sphere or Stephen King's It. Those are the two books I've read the most, believe it or not. Sphere remains one of my favourite novels of all time, it's what sparked my interest in the fields of psychology, mathematics, genetics, giant sea monsters and anything to do with the bottom of the ocean (in that same category, James Cameron's film The Abyss also managed to ignite my curiosity and fascination with the seas). On the other hand, It is still one of the scariest novels I've ever read in my life. The sheer amount of scares and their diversity, based on children's fears, is astonishing, and the structure of the novel is fairly impressive, too. It also carries the distinction of being the first King novel I ever read and being one of the first "adult" novels I ever read.

The first being John Irving's masterpiece, The World According To Garp. That book left such a staggering impression on me that I will defend Irving's place in the literary canon to the day I die. While it's not terribly challenging (compared to Joyce or Woolf), it was work for me as a kid. I had never read anything that didn't involve adventure or a statistically predictable plot path. It was also very very very sad and emotionally profound. I had never read a book that hit me as hard as that did. Garp is the book I come up with when somebody a little bit older, who isn't an academic, asks me the dreaded question, the hope being that they recognize the name (it was a huge bestseller in the day).

When an academic, or a fellow literature student asks me my favourite book, I tend to focus on the more literary. Depending on how much I want to show off, I will go with either William Gaddis' The Recognitions or Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses (or the entire Border Trilogy). Gaddis' 900 page monster is about art and art forgery. It's also about everything you could possibly say about painting and counterfeit money and cocktail parties and Flemish painters and New York dramatists. It also contains some of the finest and most realistic dialogue ever put to the page. Nobody does dialogue like Gaddis. Nobody. He had the finest ear for American language and speech than any other writer, including Tom Wolfe or Richard Yates or Richard Ford. If Gaddis is the master of dialogue, then McCarthy is the American master of scenic views. McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses is a spectacular look at the myth of the cowboy, but that just scratches the surface. It's also a story about the internal moral compass we all carry and the external moral compass of law and justice. It's a classic novel that deserves a very high place on the literary canon.

I discovered The Recognitions through Jonathan Franzen and his novel The Corrections, and I will bring up that novel when I'm asked the question by someone who reads a lot and isn't prone to reading medium-to-high literature (such as the aforementioned Gaddis and McCarthy). I really like Franzen's novel, which is one of the most read novel of my life. I tried to read it once a year for awhile, just because it was so entertaining and such an excellent example of the "symphony" effect where there are numerous in-depth points of view (like Tolstoy). It's also a great easy read about modern family life. Very enjoyable.

Somebody might have noticed that all of these novels are written by American authors, and are distinctly American, about America. I tend to focus on American literature (about America-American literature I mean) because it's such a fascinating country, where fact is mixed up with myth and so much happens so quick. If I'm asked about my favourite Canadian novel, I will either go with Robertson Davies' Fifth Business or Douglas Coupland's Microserfs or All Families Are Psychotic.

But all of this depends on my mood and what I'm currently digging. I mean, right now I'm really in "dirty realism" by which I mean Richard Ford, Richard Yates, or Raymond Carver. I'm also loving Donna Tartt. This list hasn't even touched when I'm in a sci-fi mood and I love Richard Morgan, Philip K Dick and Alfred Bester.

I can easily tell you my favourite author, however. Well, there's two. Stephen King, whom I have read everything by, and Bret Easton Ellis, whom I would do my graduate work on if I was at all interested in graduate school at the moment (I've also read everything by Ellis, but he's not nearly as prolific).

However, I couldn't tell you my favourite Ellis novel as that depends on my mood. Ha!

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