What makes a good book a favourite?

Reading Love Poems

Only a small percentage of all books that I’ve read made it to my “ultimate favourites” shelf. These are the books that I will re-read many times in my life; they are the ones I would grab first in a house fire; the books that will be keeping me company on an uninhabited island way beyond the day of missing a rescue ship because I was too engrossed in the story. These are my constant companions, my silent friends, and my chicken soup for the soul. One day I decided to take a closer look at my favourites and tried to understand how exactly they managed to capture a piece of my heart. This is what I came up with:

The books whose characters become real…

…you must have at least once in your life read a book whose characters simply capture your attention. Suddenly you start thinking about them when not reading, worrying about their destiny, talking about them to your friends like they are real people, crying at their unexpected deaths. I remember when I was reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry or A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, I felt like I personally knew every single character, no matter how secondary they were. That time when a group of kids was fighting an evil clown in the sewers of Derry (I’m talking about It, of course), I wished upon a star to keep them all alive until the end. And when I journeyed to the Polar Arctic with a team of explores on HMS Terror in the novel of the same name, I bit my fingernails trying to contain my distress seeing my beloved characters brave the bitter cold and unseen evil in the dark. Not many authors have enough skill to make a reader feel that way, but those that do should know that I will follow their works until the bitter end.

The books that make me feel violent emotions…

…if a book makes me bawl my eyes out, there is a big chance it will land on my favourites’ list. I can read a sad book and think it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t mean it I would actually be deeply touched by it. But some masterpieces just stab in the heart. I was looking back on my review of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and all the sadness and all the beauty that impacted me then suddenly rushed over me once more. Those moments never leave your consciousness really. Same was with Atonement by Ian McEwan that I still can’t think about without holding back the tears. Both the book and the movie are fantastic and deserve to be read over and over.

The books that carry nostalgic value…

…sometimes my friends look at my favourite books and wonder what possessed me to put them on such a high pedestal, when in reality there isn’t much to them. That happens. Sometimes a book that I loved as a child or teenager brings that warm and fuzzy feeling inside me that automatically make the contents ten time better. I’m not saying that these titles are bad, but I know if I read them now as an adult for the first time, I would never set them aside as outstanding. Very good – yes, but I’d have to second guess myself about the “outstanding” part. These include wonderful books like Princess Bride, The Hound of Baskervilles, and the little-known Trollbundet (“Spellbound”) by Margit Sandemo.

The books that end with a bang…

…there are also books that wouldn’t be loved so much by me if not for the memorable ending. Upon my first reading of Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck I thought I wouldn’t really care much about the story until the last few pages hit me like a hammer. Talk about being left breathless. Same happened with Gunnar’s Daughter and Gone with the Wind – but don’t get me wrong, both are great books on their own. But once in a while you have to remind yourself that books hold many secrets, and you can’t let yourself think you figured them all out before the last page is turned.

The books that are simply engrossing…

…some books are hard to classify. They simply rock for no particular reason. Can somebody tell me why exactly I loved The Painted Veil? Was it because it was poetic and fluid like a wanton river in rural China? Was it because the main character fell prey to her very human emotions? Maybe it is just the compelling and complex story line that spreads and folds on itself like a Moebius leaf. Isn’t it why I loved Kafka on the Shore or The Fortune of the Rougons? I will probably never figure it out, but it will not keep me from reading them again and again.

Favourite book is of course a subject to extreme bias. Some of you might agree with me, and some might think my choices are beyond questionable. By compiling this list I was hoping to offer a little guide to my rationale, so next time when I’m raving about the latest obsession it wouldn’t seem as weird. What makes your favourite books special?

4 comments

  1. I think nostalgic value is the main aspect of a book that makes it a favorite. As someone with a literary blog, I love this conversation, and I personally have many a favorite book. I love the perspective you bring through this post.

  2. The only item on your list that feels very different than my own choosing of favorite books is the one about feeling violent emotions. Books that make me feel violent emotions are sometimes too much of a roller coaster for me to reread them very often. And really the key to a book become a favorite, for me, is that I reread them over and over and over again.

  3. Thank you everyone!

    @Jenny. Yep, I haven’t met many people that feel same as me on the subject of emotional literature. My mom doesn’t understand how I can handle something so heavy in subject, but I keep telling her that to each their own! I need to re-read books more, but I feel like time is so precious not to explore new books. It’s a constant struggle for me. One day I will set up a month or something when I will only re-read my favourites.

  4. I definitely make favorites in a character-based fashion. If I fall in love with a character, I love the book they live in.

    I think connections happen because of who a person is–as a child, teen, adult, whatever part of life you’re in–a certain book can speak to who you are at that moment. And how can you separate that emotional connection from the book?

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