What does a favorites list say about a specific individual?
When a college recruiter, potential employer, first date or an acquaintance inquires about a favorite book, they are usually trying to get a sense of who the other person is on a more personal level.
I love the discussions that can develop out of this sort of question. I also remain extremely cautious about using the list itself as proof of personality, ethics or beliefs.
Beware! You have entered the land of dangerous assumptions.
There is no ‘should’ in a favorites list. It doesn’t matter what a person’s inner circle or society as a whole thinks; each person chooses according to their own private, gut reaction. The books placed on that very special shelf within my house are not the same as the books proudly displayed on the favorites shelf in your house. Every list is different. Every. Single. One.
It is impossible to evaluate an individual, based on a list of books, titles without knowing why those titles were selected.
My Favorites List
As an example, here is a selection of titles from my own favorites list (roughly in order according to publication date):
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
- The Ancient Child by N. Scott Momaday
- Truck Stop Rainbows by Iva Pekarkova
- Voices of Dragons by Carrie Vaughn
Just glancing over this list, what jumps out at you? When this list is evaluated without discussion, the following details are usually the center of focus…
Common literary cannons utilized by most universities:
- Women’s literature: 3
- Multi-cultural literature: 3
- Native American literature: 1
- African American literature: 1
- Fantasy and Science Fiction: 1
- LGBT literature: 1
- Pulitzer prize winners: 1
- Not recognized by academic circles: 2
- 5 women
- 2 Men
- 4 Americans
- 1 African American
- 1 Native American
- 2 White
- 1 Czechoslovakian
- 2 British
While this numeric evaluation is interesting and easy to identify, it is most important to remember that it has little to nothing to do with the process of selecting a favorite.
Favorites Selection Process
To understand the selection process we must examine an individual’s primary categories. For example, my definitions are as follows (links are to my in-progress book lists on GoodReads.com):
Favorite: Any combination of the following:
- Highly memorable books that provide a strong positive feeling.
- Books that are re-read or referenced regularly.
- A person can’t imagine life without a copy of that text.
- Useful to the point of being necessary for day-to-day living.
- Impact: Titles that significantly changed perspective or left a strong impression.
- Enjoy: Fun to read. Highly forgettable pulp fiction that is perfect for a few hours of mindless relaxation.
- Enjoy Plus: Somewhere between Enjoy and Favorite.
My definition of Favorite allows for the inclusion of any genre of text, not just novels. This is important to know because, under these circumstances, the question “what is your favorite book” could be answered with a cookbook, auto-maintenance manual, reference manual or anything else that happens to be particularly useful at that moment.
Reasons Behind Fiction Selections
Because favorite novels are so intimately personal, the only possible way to truly understand the ‘meaning’ provided by a favorites list is by delving into the reasons why the individual made those selections.
In my case, every one of the novels in my list has one or more female characters who defy society’s norms to carve out a self-determined life for herself.
Sometimes the life-path resulted in catastrophe (e.g.: Wuthering Heights) and other times it provided the best possible outcome a character could have hoped for (e.g.: Their Eyes Were Watching God). In some cases she was sexually free and aggressively confident (e.g.: Rubyfruit Jungle) and in others she was a virgin who refused to give in to peer pressure (e.g.: Voices of Dragons).
They are warriors (e.g.: Lord of The Rings), cautiously defiant and politically subversive teenagers (e.g.: Truckstop Rainbows) and strong young women who choose to live according to traditions and culture of their people (e.g.: The Ancient Child).
Whatever the circumstances, dangers or personal objectives, every one of these stories describes at least one woman who took life head-on and blazed a trail of her own making. This is a specific scenario that I am drawn to on a deep level, so the titles are placed on my favorites list.
Properly Using a Favorites List
If you ask a potential employee, new friend or long-standing acquaintance for their favorite books list, remember that the list is the beginning of the conversation and not the end of the analysis.