If you came here looking for a list, I have none. But you probably came for something else. You are here to find out what kind of person I am.
That’s what books are. Persona-shaping loneliness-fighting mystery-soaked nostalgia-induced emotionally-embalmed human connectors.
A person’s bookshelf is a museum of his soul. It can tell you everything and nothing at the same time. Everything about what the person went through but nothing about what went through him (her).
We often ask people their favorite books so we can get closer to knowing them, their secrets. But what we are really trying to know is ourselves. Our secrets.
The secret is universal: we have a hopeless urge to be living a different life. Books are back doors to that. The books we pick don’t inform our lives as much as our lives informing the books we pick. Yet we try so much to understand the book and so less to understand the life.
What makes one book special for you is who you were when you read it and the knowledge that you will never be the same person again. Its destruction is complete. It’s why picking books by morbidity lists and people’s favorites will always leave you a little frustrated. It never affects you the way it affected them. Because, and sorry about this, you have a life of your own. And so do the books you pick.
A digression about reviews. Thanks to the Internet, it has become enormously easy to sort and filter ‘value’ by the number of people that liked (or vociferously disliked) the particular object in judgment, but it’s easy to forget that the economics of the Internet is incentivized so take shit like this too seriously, not to mention your evolutionary makeup keeps you alive by worshipping the hare-brained herd and its values lest you begin to think for yourself and come to realize things on the Internet, such as reviews, much like the people dishing them, is an assemblage of human safety sandwiched between emotional extremity, each influenced and interspersed by bursts of mood swing inspired truth – by what you ought to feel – each with all the intent of being useful but lacking deeply in the very individuality that makes it useful. Or as Shakespeare once said (of reviews I’d suppose): The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
I have no refined ideology for not having a list of favorite books. The reason is naive as it is statistical: I haven’t read many books. I got into reading late and tried to make up for it in all of two years, jamming a bazillion (okay, more like 90 but it felt like a bazillion) during this period.
I knew life would never be the same again not because of one single book or a list of (favorite) books but because of every single book I read. Because each one kept me participating in a collective human consciousness that was as beautiful as it was solitary. It was like finding a hidden universe.
Over the last couple of years though, reading started to feel different. With every book, I started to feel a sense of shame.
Book lovers share a nostalgia where they feel under pressure to have read certain books just so they can be counted in the collective. It’s one of the many shitty ideals celebrated by a cerebral haute couture. Obviously: I didn’t want to be left out. Worse: look like I didn’t belong.
So I started reading the classics; the books on the lifetime list, the universal favorites. It was one of the worst years for my reading. I can’t uniquely name which of the books I hated the least. The 100 books to read in a lifetime became my list for the most number of books I left midway (Except Gone with the Wind, which I loved, and which I still can’t believe I loved). I had to read The Hunger Games all over again to purge this attempt (Yeah, The Hunger Games. Because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)
Reading felt like a chore for the last few years because I stopped picking the books I wanted to read and instead picked what I ought to read in order to feel like I am “reading”.
I thought I had crossed the chasm having seen through the bullshit that was self-help early on, but I didn’t realize my attempt at belonging to this elusive club of readers was a masked form of self-help in itself. I had taken something enjoyable and had turned it into a competition.
Writers, as a group, are unabashedly vocal about the kind of books you should let into your life (as a writer). That kinda dickish behavior bothers me. Books aren’t written to please anyone. If you can’t tell from my writing, I love digressions, unnecessary lengthy background detail, non-sequiturs. I edit by changing the parts I don’t enjoy reading. Yeah, it’s all about me.
That is how it has to be with reading. Most other parts of your life involve pleasing other people. You don’t want to let that happen inside this one universe you got lucky finding.
Knowing my favorite books will tell you nothing. All that means is I got lucky picking up the right book at the right time. Or it could mean I am constructing an image of me based on the deeply held short-sighted belief that what I read is who I am. My definition of favorite is not the singular book that slightly changed me, but the books that led to that change. That’s a sum total of all the books I have read. Even the ones I left midway.
Every book you read, like every human you meet, changes you. The only profundity attached to this is time. Every book contributes as much as the last. As much as the next.
Read what you feel like. And vice versa. Read deeply or read widely, no one gives a shit as long as you are enjoying yourself. You owe no allegiance to some egg-headed intelligentsia; that’s to turn the universal consciousness into an imitation. What binds us to one another is not that we share the same favorites, but the sheer fact that we participate in the act of reading.
Lists, favorites, reviews are all useful to the extent that they get you to start reading. You (and your reading) have no obligation to live up to them. You came into reading to discover yourself, not to belong. Every book you pick is a mirror. Favorites aren’t those that make you feel like you belong. They are those that are honest with you. And you owe it to be honest with them. To the star-studded universe, that keeps us together.