My Favorite Book
Last night, my writing group threw the table open for discussion on ‘my favorite book’. I listened as each member of the group came up with a title or two and then chose a book that was ‘the favorite’. When my turn came, I was last, they all turned to me, but I remained silent for a long time and then: “I can’t do it,” I said. “I bet it’s got windmills in,” one person remarked, thinking of my propensity of frequently quoting Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a model when literary discussions arise. Indeed, Don Quixote might be my favorite book, but is it?
Let us begin with the concept of book. Is a book something contained between two covers or could it be a series of books? For example, does one choose between The Chronicles of Narnia or must one select The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over The Silver Chair? Is one free to choose The Lord of the Rings, or must one prefer The Two Towers, say, to The Return of the King? By extension, where exactly does The Hobbit stand, as a book, in book form, in relationship to the later and longer series? Or The Silmarion? Again, can we roll them all together, a series of books under the cover of one book, a favorite book?
The idea of favorite author versus favorite book then surfaced and we discussed Georgette Heyer, John LeCarré, equally loved and loathed, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, J. K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare. The mention of Shakespeare led us into plays as reading material and plays as performance, and performance as on stage or on film. One of our members loved Shakespeare on film and TV, but didn’t like reading Shakespeare, because it was ‘difficult to read and needed the interpretation of the actor for the meaning to come across’. This same person did not like LeCarré’s books, but was very appreciative of his work on film. Where does George Smiley begin and Alec Guinness end, one asks? How can we separate the character from the actor? Applied to James Bond, who is James Bond? Is he Sean Connery (totally unique and my personal favorite), Roger Moore (better for me in the role of Simon Templar, The Saint), or one of the later and newer actors who have taken over the role? By extension, should James Bond be played by a black actor (why ever not I ask?), and could (oh horror of horrors!), a female actor take over that role (I’d love to see it … “I’m Bond. Jane Bond!”)?
This led us into the art of the narrative and the relationship between book as narrative and film as narrative. Clearly they are two different forms of media, but how do they influence each other? The book obviously comes first. We can talk of the seventeenth century novel, but it is difficult to talk of the seventeenth century film. So, the linear narrative of the book comes first and then that book is turned into a film. However, a film contains its own narratives structures and these include multiple points of view, split screens, flashbacks and time distortions, and a multiplicity of other devices among which the actual scenic impact is of the utmost importance. For most of us, the nineteenth century novel (no radio and no television for entertainment in those days) is long drawn out and very slow moving. We miss the instantaneous impact of screen and TV with the breaks for advertisements and the time to recharge our coffee cups and snacks. This leads us to our own attention spells as readers and our own demands for the instant gratification of a thrill a minute. “Hook them on page one and addict them by page three,” one person commented to many nods from around the table.
But the mention of Don Quixote also takes us into other areas. In this age of bi- and multi-lingualism, do we prefer to read our books in one language rather than in an another? Don Quixote in Spanish or French or English? And which translation? There are some twenty translations of Don Quixote into English. Is one preferable to another? Which is more accurate in the terms of a translation? Which reads more easily in terms of a re-creation in artistic form of the original? Should we prefer an English-English translation to an American-English translation? And where oh where is the Australian, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Canadian, Irish, or Welsh translator who will justify that famous text in his own country’s rendition of what used to be called the King or the Queen’s English?
Don Quixote, according to the great Spanish literary critics, is a book for the three ages of life. Readers should read it when they are young, when they are middle aged, and when they are approaching old age. Why? Because one’s reading and understanding of the book changes as one grows older. If this is true, then can we not expect to have books that we preferred at an earlier age in life, The House at Pooh Corner, for example, or The Wind in the Willows? And what about our early teens (adolescence), our early twenties (university years)? The idea of our being able to choose a ‘favorite book’ becomes less and less clear as we open up our minds to the broader horizon of tastes that change as we age and mature.
You will have noted that, with the exception of Shakespeare, we concentrated on the twin ideas of fiction and narrative, be it in word or on the screen. What about poetry? Five major critics met at the Modern Language Association of America’s meeting held one year in the University of Toronto and held a panel discussion in which they discussed why and how they had been attracted to the foreign language that they had studied. In four of the five cases, it was the poetry of the language, not the theatre or the narrative, that had pulled them in. Last night, we did not discuss poetry.
When we bring poetry to the table, we open a different discussion. We rarely read and appreciate ‘books of poetry’. With a few notable exceptions, it is individual poems and poets that attract our attention, rather than entire books or collections. And what is it about poetry that attracts us? Surely, it is the power, not of situation nor of action, but of language. It is the sheer power of language and the thrill of words that draws us to poetry. Perhaps that is why, in an age of impatience, we have less time for immersion in the magic spell of words and their undercurrents of subtle meanings. As a friend of mine said to me, the day before yesterday, “I started your poetry book, Obisdian’s Edge, but it was too deep for me, too difficult. I gave up on it. I needed something simpler to read.”
Comment: This article should be read in association with an earlier piece in this blog (15 July 2016) on My Top Ten Books.