People lie about books, and I am not above this. When my first novel was published nine years ago, I used to occasionally tell interviewers (and readers) that my favorite book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I did like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I doubt it was truly my favorite. I used to alternate that answer with Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Again, Cholera is a book I very much enjoyed, but not one I have felt compelled to pick up more than once. At the time I made these claims, I didn't feel that I was lying. Both books had been influential in my development as a writer, though that is probably not why I awarded them "favorite" status. Essentially, I liked what it said about me that The Unbearable Lightness of Being was my favorite book.
I was reminded of this when I was on NPR's "All Things Considered" to promote my latest novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. The novel is about a bookseller who finds a toddler in a bookstore, but at the heart of the story, it's about readers and the way people read. At times, it's about the difference between what people say they read and what they actually read. For example, at one point in my book, a husband and wife are discussing her first literary crush. "John Irving," she claims, but the husband knows better. "Ann M. Martin," he corrects her. I wouldn't call Ann M. Martin, the author of The Babysitters Club, my first literary crush either, but I have certainly read BSC Super Special #1: Babysitters on Board many more times than Love in the Time of Cholera.
As a way to get people talking about the themes of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, NPR had their listeners tweet the three books that "defined" them. This, of course, is a much better question than "favorite." In theory, a hated book might define a reader as much as a loved one. For instance, the agnostic child of a fundamentalist Christian minister might consider herself to be defined by the Bible. But -- and I don't want to impugn the listeners of NPR -- most who responded seemed to take this question in much the same way I once took the favorite question. They wanted their selections to reflect well upon them. Let's consider the response of @GeeDee215: Hmmmm. "The Warmth of Other Suns." "Friday Night Lights." "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." #my3books. This is an answer I can get behind for a number of reasons: two nonfiction titles, one of which was written by an African American woman, and a pop-culture-loving Pulitzer for Fiction winner written by a Hispanic author. The sports book suggests this guy's not too pretentious. I give @GeeDee215 even more points for the fact that all of these books were written in the last 25 years and by authors who are still alive. Clearly, this is a hip person who reads with admirable variety, who thinks about representation and whose tastes aren't stuck in the past. I like him already! And indeed, clicking on @GeeDee215's bio tells me that he works for NPR's Code Switch and is an "alum" of the New York Times. You can read more of the responses here. If anyone was defined by Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight (to name two of the most popular books of the last decade), you would be hard-pressed to find a self-respecting NPR listener who will admit to (or at least tweet to) that fact.
I don't mind when people "lie" about what they read. I think the lie itself is revealing and the more I consider the matter, I'm not even sure it's a lie. On some level, I think we want our reading self to represent our best self. I'm in the middle of a 25-city book tour, and I like watching what people buy in bookstores. I see people buy books that I strongly suspect they will never read, and as an author, I must tell you, I don't mind this one bit. We buy books aspirationally.
We would like to be the kind of person who would read, say, Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty, but wouldn't it be much easier to buy the 696-page book and then read the review in the New Yorker or wherever? Or hey, if the New Yorker review starts to seem too long, how about just reading the Wikipedia article? And someone must have made an infographic to explain all of this, right? Seriously, buying the book is good enough. And didn't it feel good when you set Capital in the Twenty-first Century on the counter? Didn't you feel good about yourself for buying it? You felt so good that it was easy to slip the new David Baldacci and sequel to Divergent into the buy pile, too. Those other books were afterthoughts. Surely, you'll read Capital in the Twenty-first Century first. That is definitely your next read.
At the time I'm writing this, Capital... is the #1 paper book on Amazon. I would love to know how many copies of Capital in the Twenty-first Century have actually been read in their entirety, how many have only been read through the introduction, and how many have never been opened at all. On a semi-related note, I have often wondered if a book like Fifty Shades of Grey would have done as well in a world without e-readers. What if all readers had had to go into an actual bookstore to purchase a copy? Interestingly, Capital is only the #34 Kindle book. Is the difference that if you are going to buy a book like Capital, you want the credit for it -- i.e., you want to have it sit proudly on the shelf in your home, like a trophy or a kill.
My grandparents used to bring me books every time they saw me. When I was 12, my grandfather bought me Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. When I was 13, Loyalties, Carl Bernstein's memoir. I never made it through either one, but I toted around the books for years. I liked that he thought these were books that would appeal to me, even if he was wrong. For the record, I have long suspected that my favorite book is actually Charlotte's Web. You can't find a better first line than, "Where's Papa going with that ax?"