When you set up one of these blogs, unless you are pretending to be someone else, you’re supposed to provide a profile. This, I gather, is a little like forensic criminal profiling: gathering critical information so that assumptions can be made about the personality responsible.
Fair enough. But the questions include: What are your favourite books?
I ask you – what kind of demented torturer would pose such a question? It may seem innocuous enough, but it threw me into a spin. The title of almost every book I’ve ever loved instantly vanished from my mind. I don’t remember ever reading anything. And if I did, I’m not telling you, because the only thing that pops into my feverish mind is The Children of the New Forest, which I read when I was ten, and what conclusions will you reach on that basis? Since I filled out that form, I keep remembering new “favourites” but one has to stop somewhere.
I’m clear about my favourite book: War and Peace. I read it when I was in my early teens and I’ve read it at least once a year ever since. No contest.
But anything else?
What does “favourite” mean, anyway?
I remembered the moment when my Aunty Judy put into my hands a small blue volume with gilt-edged pages – Jane Eyre. I’d never had a book with gilt edging before – in fact I don’t think I’d ever even seen such a thing (maybe a Bible). I held it in my hands and smelled the fine, almost transparent, pages. That was the moment that I became a book collector. I was twelve, at the most. So when bushfires were roaring towards my house in the bush outside Sydney a few years ago, and I had to choose a few precious things to save, I said a soggy farewell to all my other thousands of books, and put Jane Eyre in my suitcase. (Luckily, they all survived.)
I remember all the long hours standing in the Nunawading Public Library, with my head tilted to the left, staring at the bottom shelf in children’s fiction, where the authors T to W were shelved. Trease, Treece, Sutcliffe, Welch. It’s their fault that I now write historical fiction for children (with lots of swordfights).
Mind you, I owe thanks to the librarians – it was good training for the muscles in my neck, in preparation for the endless hours spent since in bookshops, head tilted to left, looking for my next favourite book.
Writing about Patrick O’Brien in the New Criterion recently, Robert Messenger pondered the idea of “favourites”:
The Aubrey/Maturin chronicles are really a single large book, in twenty-one volumes, all about love and war and home and hearth and hunting. Thinking about it, I am reminded of something the great economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron wrote about reading: “I have read War and Peace at least fifteen times, and it is still as rereadable as ever. I do not think it contains a paragraph that appears unfamiliar to me as I come across it. Yet on every perusal I never fail to discover something new in this inexhaustible store of observations, insights, ideas, and images that the previous readings have failed to reveal-to say nothing of the infinite pleasure of drifting again along the stream of that language, so simple and so beautiful, so true to the Horatian ideal of simplex munditiis. A book like this is rereadable senz’altro, and at least twice I began rereading War and Peace at once, starting again after having read the last page.”