Thursday, June 07, 2007

What's Your Favourite Novel?

In his new collection of essays, Reading Life: Books for the Ages, Sven Birkerts identifies Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow as his favourite novel. He explains what he means by favourite in the opening paragraph of the chapter that he devotes to discussion of this novel:

Whenever someone asks me to name my favourite novel, I find myself putting on a ridiculous but revealing little performance. I pretend to a natural consternation—after all, who can narrow a lifetime’s evolving preferences down to a single title?—but I use that as a cover for the real calculation, which is whether I have the interest or energy to explain my choice. For in fact I do have a favourite novel—Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow—but I know it to be an eccentric work, one that a number of reputable critics had problems with when it was published, and that many intelligent readers that I know have shaken their heads over. How much easier to cite Under the Volcano, or The Portrait of a Lady, or Ulysses, or To the Lighthouse, all works that I admire without reservation. But the question was favourite novel, which novel I visit most often in my thoughts, know most intimately, down to the structure of its cadences, and which fills me with the greatest covetousness and inspires me to emulation. This is my truest test: when I think of Humboldt’s Gift I immediately want to write.

I probably shouldn't ask this question, because I'm not sure that I can answer it myself, but here I go anyway. Employing Birkerts' definition of favourite, what's your favourite novel?

I'm tempted to say that Muriel Spark's The Comforters is mine, but I'm not entirely sure if that's true. I must mull over the question a little longer...

10 comments:

stefanie said...

Nothing springs to mind as a favorite novel, but a poetry book, The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, springs to mind as my favorite book. does that count?

litlove said...

I've just got hold of Saul Bellow's Herzog to read - thank you for this; it's certainly increased my enthusiasm for it!

Annie the Superfast Reader said...

Using that definition, it might be Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. It's an elliptical, enigmatic work that I can't quite figure out completely, which might be why I'm constantly drawn to reread it. And it's a book that makes me feel, "that's the kind of book I want to write."

Kevin said...

I would probably have to lay my adoration at the third book in the His Dark Materials Trilogy, 'The Amber Spyglass'. Never havew I read a book so feverishly, with so little desire to have it end!

Dorothy W. said...

You know, thinking about your comment over at my place, about the book that makes me want to write, I might change my answer, especially if I can pick something nonfiction. I don't really want to be a writer, but when I read certain kinds of personal essays, they make me happy in a way that almost inspires me to change my mind. I might pick a book of Mary McCarthy's personal essays. Or, if I'm sticking to my "favorite" novel, I might actually pick something by Nicholson Baker, as he's a writer who gets me excited about writing.

lucette said...

I'm tempted to say The Comforters too, because I like it so much, but it's really Anna Karenina, which I've read countless times (maybe 12?) and still love even after I've taught it twice (which can sometimes take all the shine off a book).

MyUtopia said...

I can't pick a favorite, I have too many! I have what I call a carousel of books that I add to every once in awhile. These are books that I love dearly and tend to read over and over again.

Camille said...

It may be pedestrian, but I always say Jane Eyre. It was my favorite when I first read it at 15 and it's still my favorite now. It's one of the very few books I've read more than once.

Ted said...

Franny and Zooey - which has always embarrassed me a little because its obvious and not 'great' enough. But I love it, I think of its characters and what they said often (do it for the fat lady), and I will add one criterion to my favorite - once I've picked it up to re-read it, even if I didn't mean to, I have to finish it.

Robert Earl Stewart said...

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.