Writers, can you answer this question?

books 0022What’s your favourite book?

It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.

It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.

But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.

But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.

I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.

Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a books 0012trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.

Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.

And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.

When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?

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  1. #1 by Dina Santorelli on January 26, 2014 - 7:36 pm

    My automatic answer is always TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but, truly, I have many favorites.

  2. #3 by philipparees on January 26, 2014 - 7:48 pm

    Quite agree. I dread the question, favourite author, favourite book? I can never so much as pick up a name. To Kill a Mockingbird is much loved, and probably one I wish I had written!

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:31 pm

      Hi Philippa! Ah, you’ve identified another interesting subset of the question: books you wish you could have written. Darn, why didn’t I think of that?

  3. #5 by Amber on January 26, 2014 - 7:51 pm

    Without hesitation… Confederacy of Dunces. I own two copies.

    • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:32 pm

      Two?! Is one unopened? Husband Dave has some duplicate books for that reason. The other reason he has duplicate books is that he forgets he already bought a copy…

  4. #7 by mandyevebarnett on January 26, 2014 - 7:51 pm

    As with my musical tastes, my reading material is eclectic and covers many genres. Soem books are ‘favored’ for the enchantment they gave me, such as Ferney by James Long and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. However, new favorites add to my list every year.

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:34 pm

      Mandy, don’t even get me started on music. I acquire a lot of tracks outside my usual listening tastes because they start to remind me of ideas in my books.

  5. #9 by Lesley Rice (@LesleyORice) on January 26, 2014 - 8:44 pm

    I get what you’re saying. Books are not just books, and I agree. I’d hate to be parted from mine and have spent far too much carting them round the world with me. Despite that, there is a series I always come back to, the Lymond stories by Dorothy Dunnett. I first read them in my teens. They feel like old friends.

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:35 pm

      Oh yes, Lesley. My book collection has done a fair bit of travelling – although perhaps not on a global scale…

    • #11 by linesonthepage on February 2, 2014 - 8:28 pm

      Books are not just books are they. I can’t bring myself to lend out my favorite books (not even to my mum!) I guess my favorite book is Jeanette Winterson Written on the Body. Or maybe Julian Barnes Sense of an Ending. Or maybe Adrian Mole series. Oh nope, it is Angela Carter’s Wise Children. You know what I can’t decide!

      • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 3, 2014 - 8:14 am

        Ah, lending books… I find that difficult. I also refuse to borrow them, explaining that I’m really bad about keeping them for a long time so I’d be better buying my own copy!

  6. #13 by annstanleywriting on January 26, 2014 - 8:48 pm

    Wow! I’m with you. I have a very long list of favorites. There are so many wonderful novels, and so many I have yet to read. I could perhaps pick out a list of authors that wouldn’t be more than fifty long, I’m not sure. Don’t ask me, please, or I’ll run screaming from the room!

  7. #15 by courseofmirrors on January 26, 2014 - 8:52 pm

    The Arabian Tales of 1001 Nights
    And an empty book I could scribble in.

  8. #17 by Dan Holloway on January 26, 2014 - 8:53 pm

    I find it much easier to draw up top 10 lists, which is how I normally talk about my favourite books – I always think of it as the “faves” equivalent of spread betting. There are so many reasons why a book might be a favourite – inspiration, constant dip-intoability, comfort – lists and fantasy shelves give you a chance to reflect the different parts of yourself.

    • #18 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:46 pm

      Hi Dan! I’ve used a similar approach when forced to answer the favourites question. I’ll pick several, each for a different reason – language, humanity, oddness (very important) etc.

  9. #19 by ceejaedevine on January 26, 2014 - 10:44 pm

    I’d like to see your post push people to ask the question differently.

    Of course, writers love vast numbers of books for a vast number of reasons, but, for some people, a book can actually be a turning point in their lives, something that affected them on an incredibly deep level.

    What if writers were asked instead, “Did any book ever change your life?” or “Was there a book that stands out that had the most meaning to you?” For me, that book is The Source by James Michener. I read it when I was about fourteen and I became aware of the beauty of story, the relevance of history and the desire to seek meaning in other people’s experiences, for starters :–). I became an avid, passionate reader after reading it. It truly changed my life.

  10. #21 by cordellfalk on January 26, 2014 - 10:52 pm

    I respect all the greats in literature, but my favorite novel is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Reminds me there is always an unbeaten path waiting for a daring author and also not to forget the humor in a serious craft.

    For help with a WIP I tend to give Amazon/Goodreads a half hour of research and then force myself to plow through 3 or 4 selections. Usually that’s enough of a benchmark to know what genre elements I DON’T want to indulge without tainting my own plot.

    • #22 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 26, 2014 - 11:49 pm

      Ho ho, I remember being entranced by HHGTTG when I was a teenager! It was truly a blast of fresh air. And as you say, sometimes we need to not take ourselves too seriously.
      I research on Amazon, Goodreads and also Library Thing. I find each of them throws up different suggestions for searches and all are helpful.

  11. #23 by Aldrea Alien on January 26, 2014 - 10:57 pm

    I tend to answer those questions with a list of authors and leave it at that.

  12. #25 by Elisa Nuckle on January 27, 2014 - 2:03 am

    Man, I could never pick a single favorite book. Never ever. Usually I give out my top three favorite authors. (At the time. It changes.)

    Lately I’ve been going around the internet looking up books from lists of classic scifi and fantasy works so I can at least better understand the foundations of my two favorite genres. Not sure if everyone does that. Then I just pick books that sound interesting, ones that fit the mood I’m in when I find/stumble onto them.

  13. #28 by Addy Rae on January 27, 2014 - 5:59 am

    ‘Finity’s End’ by C J Cherryh is my all time favorite just from the impact it made on me originally, but also from the new layers I see every time I read it. I do have several favorite series though that I try to spread around for new people to enjoy. :)

    • #29 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 27, 2014 - 8:56 am

      Finity’s End? I think I’ve been widening my TBR list as I read these comments!

      • #30 by Addy Rae on January 28, 2014 - 1:06 pm

        Soft science fiction. She portrays the turbulent emotions of a teenager so well it yanks at me, and she has a strong character growth arc that lets me look back at his emotions… and my own… and understand them more clearly. Secondary plot is politics in space, and it weaves neatly into the main plot so they aren’t separate so much as supporting each other.

  14. #31 by Andy Szpuk on January 27, 2014 - 8:17 am

    Agree about Farrow and Ball, I’ve always held an affection for Dead Salmon as a colour. I was put in this situation when taking part in a local reading group for the Guardian First Book Award 2011 – we were asked to talk about our favourite book of that year, and also about our favourite book of all time. As I was waiting for my turn to speak, one book leapt out: ‘Ham on Rye’ by Charles Bukowski, and I stand by that choice even today although there are so many.
    I find everyday inspiration serendipitous so often, almost as if fate is taking a hand, but it extends to music, film and TV (although I don’t want much these days), as well as books, and I find myself analysing how the story is told, the delivery and some of it feeds in.

    • #32 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 27, 2014 - 8:55 am

      Andy – a fellow F&B fan! My colourchart has a few lines of background about each colour, which I find even more delightful. How about Downpipe and Pale Powder? I don’t know what it is about them. Some of them conjure rooms, echoing with dialogue – particularly attics speckled with luminous dust. Some of them are characters. Whatever, it’s wondrous.
      Like you, I also look for story in other media. Whatever grabs my attention.

      • #33 by danholloway on January 27, 2014 - 9:16 am

        a Farrow and Ball colour was the key clue in one of my thrillers (it had to do with the date when they staretd making teh colour in question)

  15. #35 by DRMarvello on January 27, 2014 - 1:28 pm

    I have no doubt about my favorite book. It’s “Dune” by Frank Herbert. I can immediately narrow my favorites list down to the books I’ve read more than once, and that’s a very short list. Other than the Dune series, that would include The Belgariad by David Eddings, the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. If I were to look at my bookshelf, I could name a few others, since I only keep books I plan to read again (only about one out of five hundred to a thousand qualify).

    I never would have thought of paint chips as being inspirational, but now that you mention it, my wife and I had a lot of fun with the paint book recently. We painted the interior of our house a creamy off-white called “Snug Cottage” (and that’s exactly how it feels). We painted the exterior “Colorado Trail,” which is a mocha color. Looking through the paint chips, I was impressed with the creativity of the people who named them. The names often invoked the color perfectly.

    • #36 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 27, 2014 - 3:15 pm

      Hi Daniel! Ah, the subset of books we have read more than once is a different thing again. There are books I’ve kept because I feel they should be read more than once, but I don’t know if I’ll get round to them with so much else to do. There are also books I’ve ended up flipping through to remind me of something – and have fallen into all over again.

      And you’re another paint charts fan! We now have four members (see Andy and t’other Dan above). This is too funny.

  16. #37 by Dennis Langley on January 27, 2014 - 2:51 pm

    You are so right. It is nearly impossible to limit it to one. The first novel I read is still very special to me, “Where Eagles Dare” by Allistair MacLean.

    • #38 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 27, 2014 - 3:17 pm

      Hi Dennis! I certainly remember the first work of literature I enjoyed after finishing my English degree. After months of struggling with the reading list, and therefore not reading anything else, I celebrated by gobbling up modern fiction from the local Oxfam. Then one day I picked up The Mayor of Casterbridge and I suddenly understood. That book is special for that reason.

  17. #39 by jay feltham on January 27, 2014 - 4:29 pm

    Without a shadow of doubt for me it would be shutter island by dennis lehane, but i could also list a few that i can read more than once. I draw inspiration through dreams i find most of the time or daydreaming haha. Past Experience and music also feature heavily :-).

  18. #42 by Carla Monticelli (@ladyanakina) on January 27, 2014 - 6:29 pm

    My favourite book is without any doubt “Hannibal” dy Thomas Harris. I love all his books (they are not many unfortunately), they are addictive like no others to me, but if I have to name one, that one would be “Hannibal”.

  19. #44 by acflory on January 28, 2014 - 12:09 am

    I have a simple answer to your question Roz – my favourite book is the one I remember…and I remember hundreds of them. I admit, there are some I remember faster, better, more easily than others, but that’s just because the memory triggers change over time. If we were to download all our favourite books to Kindles, I bet we’d have a roomful of Kindles :D

    • #45 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 28, 2014 - 11:19 am

      Good answer, Andrea! For me it’s often the book that’s made an impression most recently. But a test of a real keeper is if I pick it up and become trapped again.

      • #46 by acflory on January 30, 2014 - 1:52 am

        Yup, yup. :) I’ve read and re-read the Dune series at least 7 times, yet each time I find subtle and not so subtle things I missed the first N number of times. And the same applies to all the novels and series that have gobsmacked me in the past.

        By contrast, my poor Kindle is full of stories I’ve read, and can’t remember, even vaguely, a week later. :(

        You’ll be pleased to know Lifeform Three is still bright and fresh in my mind.:)

  20. #48 by Kat on January 28, 2014 - 12:16 am

    That’s an easy question for me—The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson! (I already know your thoughts on that one, though. ;) )

  21. #50 by J. Thomas Ross on January 28, 2014 - 12:22 am

    I’m in the same boat, Roz. I find it impossible to pick one favorite. I love many books, all for different reasons.

  22. #52 by jumpingfromcliffs on January 28, 2014 - 4:20 pm

    Brilliant comment about the F&B paint chart, sheer genius :D It is a cracking read though isn’t it? I’ve always fancied a job as a paint-namer for them. “Dowager’s Hairpiece? Yes! That’s our 2014 line complete then.”

    Favourite book? No more than I could name a favourite album. It can change with the time of day, the weather, my mood, where I happen to be reading… I can’t even narrow down one favourite author most days.

  23. #54 by Frances O on January 28, 2014 - 10:05 pm

    It’s an impossible question, as you point out, Roz. Still, when you do your Desert Island Discs I’ll be listening extra hard…
    I’d have to say Fahrenheit 451, because it shows that even if you do choose one book, it needs to be surrounded by others.
    My current WIP reading is about servants’ life in the early C19th, prisons, transportation to Australia, working class life in London. Yes, it’s historical fiction.

  24. #56 by Ellisha on January 28, 2014 - 10:53 pm

    I can’t imagine having only one favorite book-my favorite book change constantly, perhaps even weekly. At the moment it’s “The Beauty of Ordinary Things” by Harriet Chessman, but that’s because I just finished it and it made me cry (in a good way). At different points in my life, my favorite book has even been “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” like my fellow readers above, and I still love both of those books. “Power of One”, “An Equal Music”, “1984″, “Tales of the City”-the list goes on. Yep, I’m inclined to agree with you, not sure how one person could have a favorite all time book…

  25. #58 by Erin O'Riordan on January 29, 2014 - 2:26 am

    I have lots of favorites, but I always say ‘Wuthering Heights’ because it’s the one I’ve reread the most.

    • #59 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 30, 2014 - 9:31 am

      Aha, ‘the book I have reread the most’.. Good approach. I have a lot of cherished books I’ve reread, but I think the volume I’ve reread most often isn’t a novel but a drama – Equus by Peter Shaffer.

  26. #60 by grammarilluminati on January 29, 2014 - 3:06 am

    My go-to answer is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. But I love SO many others!

  27. #62 by cydmadsen on January 29, 2014 - 6:25 am

    Oh, this is such an easy question. Why, it’s David Copperfield, of course. No, wait, I have that confused with Bleak House. Oh, just a minute. Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, that’s the one. Oh, but then that makes me think of Tortilla Flats, which reminds me how much I adore The Once And Future King. And then there’s… :-)

    You’re not alone with the color charts. I’ve always worked with a color wheel next to my desk. No names, though. Just colors for the visual pleasure of it all. For names I scan credits of a film. Have you ever read how Lee Child decided what Jack’s last name would be? He was reaching past his wife for something on the grocery shelf, and she said, “You’re quite a reacher.” He ran with the name and a fortune was born.

    • #63 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 30, 2014 - 9:35 am

      Cyd, I love your colour wheel and the reasons for it! I love how we get attached to these random items like primitive talismen. A colour chart because it gives me pleasure. I have the long, stripy tail feather of a pheasant because I found it one day in my horse’s stable and I can’t imagine how it got there.

  28. #64 by tomburkhalter on January 29, 2014 - 1:45 pm

    Oh my. Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane by Victor Appleton III, because it sparked a life-long love of science fiction; the same for Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein, the first book I actually ever ordered from a book store. Then there was The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz (for the total sense of wonder) and Rites of Passage by Alexei Panshin — because those were the two books that made me think, I can write! The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, because when you’re a teenage boy that’s the only reason you need to be a musketeer. Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward L. Beach because, well, submarines! The Skylark series by E.E. “Doc” Smith, for feeding that sense of wonder in youth, and for sadness in maturity by seeing how favorite toys don’t always age well. Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester, or The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, for being the first novels by those authors I ever read, and opening doors into whole new vistas of imagination. Round the Bend by Nevil Shute, for a different sort of wonder. The Menacers by Donald Hamilton, for teaching me about assassins with a heart. The “Karla Trilogy” by John le Carre, for the effortless intricacy of the plot. So many, many others. I loved them all, and they each left a piece of something inside me that was already me, only I didn’t know it then.

  29. #66 by rinellegrey on January 30, 2014 - 2:07 pm

    I don’t know how I could pick a favourite. It’s like being asked to pick a favourite child!

    And I also have different favourites for different ages/life stages. A few years ago I would have picked Little Women or Gone With the Wind, but these days I read a different type of story. My current favourite would probably be Dust, by Hugh Howey, gee that man can draw you in!

  30. #67 by Pete Denton on February 2, 2014 - 7:48 pm

    I could narrow it down to to half a dozen or so, but the definitive answer would be dependant on my mood. :)

  31. #69 by Daniel R. Vertrees on February 5, 2014 - 5:15 pm

    Jumping in late, but . . . I touch the redundant button by saying “there are just so many” but it is true isn’t it? My problem is there are favorite academic books, spiritual books, historical non-fiction, fiction, highfalutin lit-trah-chure, political commentary, sociology, philosophy – oh my. I find that any and all inform my writing. The “First American” books of Kathleen and Richard Gere are among my constant favorites. Most are rocking good stories and they are the only novels I have come across with extensive bibliographies at the back. As actual archaeologists when they spin their tales there is a underlying strata of research and discovery that adds a level of authenticity that I find compelling. Just what I like – take a bunch of facts, weave in fantasy and shazam! a novel….

    • #70 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 6, 2014 - 3:13 pm

      Daniel, you have given me another way to bend the rules if I ever find myself called up to the desert island, and only allowed one book. I shall say there has to be one book for every category, as you cannot compare biography with thriller or historical or science fiction, for instance. If I’m careful to subdivide (Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ versus his spiritually anguished titles) I can take my entire library.

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