Monday, May 12, 2008

An Alphabet of Favorites

This little exercise, which I first saw at Litlove’s (so long ago, everyone has probably forgotten it), is great, because it allows me to talk about a distinction I love to make, one that so many of the book snobs and pseudo intellectuals I’ve known don’t make. The idea is to list a favorite novel for each letter of the alphabet, based on the author's last name. Thus, I get to tell you that there is a distinction between books that I, Emily Nobody, happen to think are “great” (typically, yawn-worthy lists, because they’re so similar to everyone else’s “great” lists. I mean, let’s face it, great literature is great literature, and if you’ve read something that’s considered “great,” chances are, even if you didn’t particularly like it, you understand why it’s considered to be so) and books that I just happen to think are great reads, regardless of what literary critics and other "experts" might think.

I have a much more difficult time with the latter category. I guess it’s because I just don’t like to say something is my favorite. I mean, how does one, really, choose I Capture the Castle over A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? However, I do know what “favorite” means as opposed to “great.” In case you don’t, here’s an example: I’ve got 2 days to live, and someone’s given me the letter “T” as the letter for the last name of the author I can choose to read during these last two days. Now, let’s pretend I could actually get through War and Peace during those two days while I’m busy doing everything else I’d like to do for the last time before I die. I’d choose Thurber’s The Wonderful O over War and Peace, no question.

That distinction doesn’t necessarily make it easier to choose my favorites, though. And then, of course, there are “greats” that also happen to be favorites of mine, like Crime and Punishment. Still, I hope it helps you to understand that, yes, I know James Joyce is probably a greater author than Jerome K. Jerome. However, if you want to engage me in a conversation, you’re much better off asking, “So, who’s your favorite man in the boat?” rather than “Have you read Ulysses?” (the answer to which is, “no,” thus ending the conversation). So, book snobs beware. I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed by this list.

Alcott, Little Women –I’m a girl. What can I say?

Bronte, Jane Eyre – manages to be both an all-time favorite, cherished through each reading, and still a “great.”

Cervantes, Don Quixote – all right, so far, I’m not doing too well avoiding the “greats,” (I didn't think I was a book snob), and many of you are sick of hearing me go on and on about this one, but I was blown away by it when I finally read it a few years ago.

Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment – well, I already told you this “great” was going to be on the list.

Enright, The Melendy Family – there you go, finally a non-"great" (although Enright did win a Newbury for her very inferior Thimble Summer).

Finney, Time and Again – for once, a book everyone told me I had to read that I finished and thought, “They were so right!”

Garcia-Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera – nothing else I’ve ever read, except possibly Constant’s Adolphe, comes close to being such a perfect study of the question “what is love?”

Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles – this is one of the best studies of the plight of women I’ve ever read. It’s still very relevant today.

Irving, A Prayer for Own Meaney – so call me “middle-brow,” if to be so means I don’t have to miss out on this, the most hilarious of the Irvings I’ve read.

Jerome, Three Men in a Boat – it doesn’t matter how many times I read it, I still laugh out loud.

King, The Shining – it still scares the crap out of me.

Laski, The Victorian Chaise Longue – it’s probably the book I’ve most recommended to others to read.

Macaulay, They Were Defeated – it’s very hard to pick this one over her Towers of Trebizond. It just ekes by for me, because, well, there are things like a fabulous female protagonist, and witch hunts, and philosophers, and atheists, and Cambridge, and England on the verge of Civil War, etc. Oh yeah, and then there’s the heartbreaking ending…

Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet – the Phoenix is probably one of my all-time favorite fictional characters.

Orne Jewett, Country of the Pointed Firs – is that cheating? Is she really a “J?” Anyway, beautiful, poignant, and it takes place in Maine. What’s not to like?

Pym, Excellent Women – nothing else makes me want to board a time machine back to 20th-century England more.

Q – like other bloggers who've completed this exercise, I can’t think of anything for “Q.”

Russo, Empire Falls – I’d love to be able to write like this.

Smith, I Capture the Castle – everything in one: funny, charming, wise, romantic, and heartbreaking.

Thurber, The Wonderful O – I love wordplay, and this is the best wordplay book I’ve ever read, even better than Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which is saying a lot.

U – here’s another letter that doesn’t work for me. Could I substitute another “S” instead? If so, it’s Stegner, Crossing to Safety.

Vargas-Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – it tickles my funny bone every single time,and I haven't bothered to read anything else by him, because I just can't imagine anything else could be as good.

Wolff, Old School -- it's so much better than that "great" Catcher in the Rye. Anyone else agree?

X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X – I know this isn’t a novel, but nobody these days seems to be able to tell the difference between memoir and fiction. I love this book for the fact that I absolutely didn’t want to read it but was riveted from page one.

Yolen, Beauty – one of my favorite fairytales is Beauty and the Beast, and this is just a gorgeous re-telling.

Z – right there with “Q” and “U”

(Continuing along the same lines, my next post will be the meme of unread books from LibraryThing, which will have considerable overlap with this list, I’m sure.)


raych said...

Dude, I don't even know Jerome K Jerome, but I would choose him over James Joyce. Also, I would punch Joyce in the face.

Don Quixote is one of those books that I've always felt like I should read. I'm glad you liked it so much, that ups the chances that I will read it.

Eva said...

I just reread I Capture the Castle and fell in love with it all over again. :D

I second Raych's intentions towards James Joyce!! But how dare you list so many books I've never even heard of, which makes me want to to run out and read them all this minute?!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Raych! Except about Don Quixote. No way am I trying that again. Now I'm off to find my alphabet of favourites.

Emily Barton said...

Raych, oh so glad to hear someone's going to punch Joyce in the face. I think you have to come to Cervantes thinking you probably won't like it and then discover, despite all you've been told about it all your life, that the windmills are not the focus of the book and that you've somehow managed to be thrown into a post-modern (despite the fact no one knew what post-modernism was back then), chivalric romp with some magical realism, slapstick comedy, and romance thrown into the mix. If that sounds plausible, I'd say give it a try.

Eva, what? I've actually read some books you haven't? Well, now I'm proud of myself :-)!

MFS, please come up with somebody for Q, U, and Z, because if they're favorites of yours, chances are quite high that I'll like them, too. (We'll ignore Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment and think about things like Three Men in a Boat and The Homemaker -- oooh, I should have put THAT one on the list -- instead.)

Anonymous said...

I do love reading these lists, even though they do terrible things to the tbr mountain. You remind me that I MUST read the Victorian Chaise Longue! And if I had two minutes to live, I don't think I'd choose Tolstoy to accompany me through them, either. I think I'd be in need of something with jokes!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, yes, these lists are great fun despite the TBR Mountain damage they do. The Victorian Chaise Longue is nice and short, so you can read it quickly and check it off the list. I think you'll love it.

Rebecca H. said...

Lots of stuff I'd like to read here (and lots I agree with you about), including the Macauley and Jerome K. Jerome. Definitely there are multiple ways to define great!