The philosopher Francis Bacon was of the opinion that “some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”. Poet W. H. Auden put it another way: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered”.
Among President Obama’s top-5 favorite books are Moby Dick and The Bible. One of Bill Gates’s favorite books is Business Adventures, while Elon Musk prefers Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Gabriel García Márquez put books by Joyce and Kafka in his top list. Susan Sontag’s selection included titles by Tolstoy and Goethe. David Foster Wallace went for those by C.S. Lewis and Stephen King. Among Alan Turing’s library-borrowed books there were not only science titles, but also several by Lewis Carroll. David Bowie’s list included a wide range of novels, poetry and politics.
What made those books their favorite books?
There are books people think that should be their favorite books. These are the books “everybody” talks about, the “important” ones, and those that you are supposed to admire. The books that other people expect you to publicly advertise: Because of your social status, religious inclinations or ideological loyalties. Some of these books are undeservedly remembered.
And then there are your truly favorite books. The ones that you may even love. The books that you fully appreciated on first reading, the ones that have always been with you, and those that you learned to value on a second (or more) readings. These are the books that do not have to be in other people’s favorite picks. The books that you “digested thoroughly”, the ones that sometimes are undeservedly forgotten.
What makes a book fall into the latter category?
Clearly, there are not generalizable rules. Despite commonalities among individuals, this is a very personal experience. An honest selection may require whispering to yourself. Listing your top choices may seem like a secret ritual, a childhood’s hidden treasure.
And yet, it’s often possible to distill in a few words your “reasons” for caring about a particular book, to approximate your feelings in a few sentences. An essence that may sound familiar to others, almost universal.
Islands (Les Îles) is a book of essays by French writer Jean Grenier. The book combines childhood and adult memories, including those on Grenier’s cat Maoulou. Grenier was a teacher of Nobel laureate Albert Camus, and Islands became one of the top favorite, most influential books in Camus’ life.
Why this one in particular?
To Camus, the reason was simple and yet potent: The book triggered in him a colossal desire to write. In Camus’ words: “Something, someone, was stirring in me, obscurely, and wanted to speak”.
In this example, like in many others, it seems that your greatest reads are those that reveal to you a new way to be, or to do. A window into discovery. Not an escape or diversion from a particular reality, but a decoded invitation to peer and eventually enter other realities: Augmented, thrilling or just different.
However, it does not have to be a revelation, or even an illumination.
Your favorite books may also condense an evocation: of birthplace, youth, hope, loss, resistance or joy. Or they could be reminders of your sense of a better life, of a possible life: past or to be accomplished. Moments of reconciliation with life.
Perhaps you found your favorite book a long time ago, or maybe you are still looking for it. In any case, it’s always a good time to answer to yourself: What makes that book my unforgettable book?