What’s your favorite book?
For voracious readers, this question requires a massive amount of brain power―mental calculation similar to that used when pondering the meaning of life or the size of the universe. And It’s such a personal question. Say something by Nicholas Sparks, and you’re labeled a lazy reader and a hopeless romantic. Say Moby Dick and you’re either a literature professor, a nut-job, or you’re lying.
In the New York Times Bestselling novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, author Gabrielle Zevin plays to this idea―that what fills our bookshelves defines who we are. “I thought as a strategy; it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read,” says Zevin. “every single character I knew, I would introduce them by telling you, again, what they read.”
As someone who talks about books with whomever will listen, literature’s ability to define who we are excites me―yet I feel a creeping anxiety while pondering how I would answer this question. When my character is at stake, when what I read has some definitive bearing on who I am, the question stresses me out.
The protagonist A.J. Fikry, for example, is a crotchety old bookseller in the isolated New England town of Alice Island―a guy who thumbs his nose at anything unworthy of the term “literary.”
“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.” - A.J. Fikry
We’re all thinking it, he’s just saying it (especially the bit about vampires). Those of us with a high-brow literary taste often thumb our noses at such things. I know I’m guilty of it―I refused to buy the movie edition of The Silver Lining’s Playbook even though Michael Quick was coming to my bookstore. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with Bradley Cooper on the cover.
Zevin’s hyperbolic characterization of A.J. allows readers to see just how ridiculous such a elitist mindset is. If every book you choose to read must follow every criteria you set, then what are you missing? How crotchety of me! How close-minded!
Yet there’s a negative stigma associated with certain types of books. When I see a book with a movie poster on the cover, I think of a bored house-wife reading the book simply so she can better appreciate Bradley Cooper’s abs when she sees the movie. When picture an avid David Foster Wallace fan, I see a pretentious wanna-be writer scribbling DFW quotes in a Moleskine journal from underneath the shade of their fedora and ere of superiority―a guy who uses words like “gentrification” and “iconoclast” in casual conversation. When I think of fantasy readers, I picture an overweight teenager with Cheetoh dusted fingers and a Vitamin D deficiency from a life spent in a basement playing Dungeons and Dragons.
Equal parts desire to be seen as a well-read woman and fear of being filed into a certain stereotypes, I often avoid certain types of books. And I’m often obnoxiously vocal about my choices. I will never read a book about vampires, Infinite Jest, or a fantasy novel.
Well... there’s always an exception.
I say I don’t like fantasy, but I remember the tears I shed on my twelfth birthday when my Hogwarts letter still hadn’t come. At seventeen-years-old, I cut ears out of construction paper and holes in an old pillowcase to dress like Dobby for the second-to-last movie premiere. I was so disappointed when the elf showed up on screen still clad in only his pillowcase―those mismatched socks, those hats piled high―they were symbols of his freedom! How dare the designer forgo such pivotal thematic details! The summer before I went college, I wept when Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 final credits began to roll. The tears were the perfect bookends to my fantastical fanaticism.
To say that I love Harry Potter would be a serious understatement. Turning up my nose to fantasy―and to Harry Potter by association―would be absolutely blasphemous. Time to retreat to the basement and lick my orange fingers.
Books do have the power to define us. Just as we connect with like-minded, interesting people, we similarly connect to books that mirror us. But where would we be without those that fascinate us, that challenge us, that entertain us? The internal inventory of books read we keep sets us apart from each other, playing off personal experiences to create our own unique sensibility.
Reading is about challenging yourself, about broadening your mind and becoming consumed by an alternate reality. But it’s also about enjoying yourself. Some readers may enjoy a little more challenge, tragedy, or thought, while others may enjoy reading a run-of-the-mill detective tale.
The stereotypes I’ve created to define people who read a particular genre mean little. I refuse to judge a book by its genre―or a person by her taste in books. Literature gives us escape, insight, and above all, self-discovery. Limiting the scope of your reading to only books that support how you wish to seem rather than who you really are is rather silly and frankly counter-productive. Unlike most things that dominate the world today―like test scores, salaries, and social media―what we choose to read has little bearing on our public image. What a relief that is.
Now I browse the fantasy section with my head held high. I no longer stress over answering the question of which book defines me. If I love Harry Potter more than James Joyce, so be it. I connect with The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s charming, delightful, and heartbreaking story―it shows the power and the danger that comes with literature’s ability to define.
To all those who scoff at the commercial appeal of Harry Potter or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I offer you my cheesy middle finger.