The first time I visit the home of a new acquaintance, I find myself drifting over to check out the books. Not so much to find out about the books as to find out about the person. Sometimes I find shelves of well-worn favorites. Sometimes I find shelves of virginal tomes of great weight. Sometimes I find no books at all (Horrors).
When someone asks us our favorite books, they are asking us to reveal something of ourselves. We can choose to show our pompous erudition, our guilty pleasures, our true passions. Whatever we choose, we will be exposing ourselves. An act as equivocal as the word.
So let’s start at the top with my first guilty admission. My true favorites are certain children’s books, perhaps because I came upon them as an adult. The books I actually grew up with were a generation out of date. While my contemporaries had Peter Rabbit, Dr. Seuss and the Hardy boys, I had Uncle Wiggly, Dr Doolittle and Tarzan. This may have put me a bit out of step (and time) but it is not a trade I can really bring myself to regret.
But it meant that I never read Winnie The Pooh or the Narnia Books until I after I was married. Perhaps I am already exposing more than I would care to know, but I carry very special love for those people and those books that allowed me to feel and be a child again. “A teddy bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise…”
Jumping back in chronology, I must have been eight or nine when I discovered the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had never heard of science fiction and it was a wonderful shock to find out that whole worlds could be created, peopled and visited. I read them the way you dive into a pool: total immersion. I immersed myself in every one of those Burroughs books I could find. (Not too easy as they were out of print.) It was also the first time I manifested a character trait that stays with me to this day: Binging. When I discover some author I like, I gorge until I reach the end of that author’s works. (I remember reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories over a weekend.)
I kept my science fiction up through high school and college, moving through Heinlein, Asimov, E. E. Smith, Andre Norton and the rest of that wonderful crew. (In college, I rediscovered total immersion with J.R.R. Tolkien.) As an adult, I found Gordon Dickson, Anne McCaffrey and Spider Robinson (and re-read Heinlein again and again). Today, my favorite is probably Barbara Hambly.
Somewhere along the way, I developed a fascination for military history. Up into college, that was an acceptable pastime, if a bit too rudely masculine (“macho” wasn’t a term yet.). During and after Vietnam, though, it became the equivalent of “politically incorrect.” It passed into the realm of my guilty pleasures, where I suppose it still is.
I am sorry to say that despite a wealth of material, not a lot of this writing is particularly distinguished. But there are exceptions. Churchill’s writing is like chocolate. It has its flaws in terms of nutritional value, but it tastes so good you find it hard to stop. The First World War produced some great autobiographies. Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis, is arguably the best book to come out of the air war. The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, Lawrence’s masterpiece, is simply that. You can read it for his genius in irregular war or for the pristine beauty of his prose. Bruce Catton, for my money, is the only author who captured the extraordinary humanity in the Civil War and showed why it ended as no other civil war has done.
In high school, I became possessed by James A. Michener. I read everything he wrote, loving almost all of it (Exception was Tales Of The South Pacific. Just didn’t like the flavor.). Sadly, perhaps, it is a love that did not survive the passage of time. But I have read and re-read his non-fiction Iberia. I rank it as the best travel book I have ever read.
In mysteries, I used to love the locked room tangles of John Dickson Carr, another love that has not fully survived. They recently re-issued Authur Upfield’s series about his aborigine detective Napoleon Bonaparte and I have been re-reading them with pleasure and nostalgia. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote the most literate of mysteries, although her character clearly got away from her. Today, I wait upon each new volume of Lilian Jackson Braun’s books about her feline detectives. Not because they are great as mysteries or as writing, but because they have become gentle, whimsical friends.
Gosh, who else? Everything Barbara Tuchman every wrote. Ditto James Herriot. Dune, of course, and nothing else Herbert ever wrote. David Niven for simple enjoyment. Dumas and Sabatini for the swash and buckle. Historians Boorstin and Furnas for their lucid delight in what they found. Tom Clancy for pacing and e.e. cummings for punctuation.
Stop! This question is like some kind of computer virus. The contagion spreads out and I suddenly have old chunks of memory popping up like bubbles. I’ve got to do some more filtering or this will turn into a book itself. Okay…But…What criteria do I use? The ones I read when I want to feel good? When I want to be challenged? When I don’t? The plot? The language? The style? The pacing? The brilliance? The insight? HELP!
Okay, now. Just calm down. Worst case, you’ve embarrassed yourself while revealing your plebeian tastes. You only have forty or fifty friends who will never let you forget it. No big deal.
I suspect the truth is, like a lot of people, I am many readers, each with different criteria. Sometimes I read when I want my brain exercised and sometimes when I don’t. In the first category, I can be interested by language, by description or by just the story being told. But I am really captured by an author who leads me along, lets me clearly anticipate the destination…and arrives somewhere else. When I don’t want my brain to be strained, I tend to go for books that have a core that is affirming. Call me a barbarian if you like, but I have had enough wallowing downers masquerading as “sophistication” to last more than this lifetime.
In the end, maybe I can boil it down to a single criterion. I like authors, in whatever field they write, who show a real zest for life and what they are doing. Give that, and you have captured me. And have me relishing my captivity.