Favorite novel?

Kate S. quotes a Sven Birkerts essay in which he discusses his favorite novel, Humboldt’s Gift, defining “favorite” as:

[the 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.

Kate then asks readers to cite their own favorite, according to Birkerts’ definition. Now, as I’m not a fiction writer and don’t aspire to be one, I can’t answer the question fully, but if I leave out the last criteria — the novel that inspires me to emulation — then I’d have to answer Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I wish I had a more original answer. Big surprise, right? But that’s the one that comes to mind first. It’s surely the novel, setting aside children’s books, that I’ve read most often; I don’t know how many times. It’s the novel I know best, one I re-read when I want something comforting and familiar but one that always seems new and newly interesting.

If I were a writer, my answer might be different, because I’m not sure I would want to try to emulate her, or that my style would be at all like hers — I mean, even remotely like hers, because, of course, it wouldn’t really be like hers, as she’s in a category of her own, I think.

Anyone else have an answer?

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Favorite novel?

  1. hepzibah

    That is interesting. When I write, I find that I unconsciously or consciously try to emulate the style of Edith Wharton, my favorite novel is Ethan Frome and I can read that novel again and again, and like you said about Austen, it still remains a mystery to me and it provides me with so much comfort – When I write, I honestly don’t try to emulate anyone, I want my writing to be fully my own, but when I reread my work I realize that I sound like her sometimes and I think wow, that’s something Wharton would have said….

    I am so happy that you and hobgoblin are able to make the book sale….I look forward to seeing the both of you. :) It’s opening night so I hear that its really busy, but Friday night’s the best since you get first pick, and I’m sure you’ll find something that you like.

  2. Brandon

    By that definition, I’d have to go with either Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” or Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions.” But I’m leaning more towards “Only Revolutions,” because I haven’t been able to get it out of my head lately.

  3. I agree with you that the notion of inspiring to emulation is a tricky business. Particularly so if your favourite isn’t a contemporary novel because you don’t want to sound dated, but also if it is a contemporary novel because, as hepzibah says, you want your work to be your own, not a pale imitation of someone else’s, regardless of how fabulous that someone else is. I would substitute for inspiring to emulation Birkerts final point about a book that makes you want to write. I find that books that inspire me in that way don’t inspire me to emulate in the sense of wanting to write in a similar style to the admired author; rather, they make me want to produce something that has a similar power, that can make someone else feel the way that the admired work made me feel. Perhaps that sort of inspiration can also cut across genres, so that a great novel could inspire you to embark on an essay or a poem. I know that reading very good poems often makes me feel writing fiction.

  4. This is a hard question. I think the answer would change probably,too, depending on the day or my mood. At the moment I think Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. There is something about the stories she writes and how she writes. If I were a writer I would like to emulate her style–especially of her recent Gentlemen and Players–I loved the trickiness of that novel! Of course I might also substitute Margaret Atwood–particularly The Handmaid’s Tale. I should probably choose a classic, but I feel like I haven’t read widely enough yet, or reread enough times to be “intimate”.

  5. This is a tremendously interesting blog, and subject matter.
    I like the term “favorites” even though it is often so inaccurate and trite.
    But…… as I consider Birkerts terms…. I am going to stick with Anna Karenina as my all-time favorite novel.
    Even though I do not want to emulate any of the protagonists, per se. Whether they be Anna, or Vronsky, or Levin, or Kitty, or Karenin.
    They are all equally admirable and/or deplorable. Well… except for Kitty, as she is sort of always admirable…. hence Levin [a.k.a. Tolstoy himself] “gets” her!
    Perhaps the fact that I do not want to emulate any of these characters, yet I LOVE them all, is a signpost pointing toward the greatness of the book[?!]
    All I know is that when it comes to “covetousness”, I covet Leo Tolstory’s gift.
    As he remains, definitively, my “favorite” AUTHOR!

  6. I commented on Kate’s that I couldn’t think of a novel, only a book of poetry. Now that you are asking the question too I guess I have to say Great Expectations. I’ve read it several times, I love every character in the book, it makes me laugh and it makes me cry, and even though it has been years since I read it last I still think about it.

  7. hepzibah

    I hope that you get this email, but I would suggest coming at 5 30, since from 3-5:30, the prices are doubled, and that gets kinda of expensive and I didn’t want you to wait, so I just wanted to let you know…

  8. Thanks Hepzibah — I checked out the website and saw the times, so we’re planning on coming in the evening (maybe not 5:30 exactly, but shortly after). Thanks!

  9. I’m such a broken record on this subject.
    Beach Music by Pat Conroy

  10. I don’t know what mine would be. My husband is a board game designer and he has definitely emulated a style of one of his favorite designer’s.

  11. RhiGirl

    Anything by Anne McCaffrey, though my favorite book would be All the Weyrs of Pern.

    That or Morgan Llywelyn’s Red Branch.

  12. It was nice seeing you at the sale Hepzibah! Thanks for the Wharton books :) Brandon — you can’t go wrong with Ishiguro; he’s one of my favorite novelists ever. Kate, I like the way you’ve broadened the definition — it’s now much easier to answer. Danielle — I’ll have to try Chocolat one of these days! It sounds like a great read. Interesing choice, Cipriano — I’ve enjoyed reading that book two times now, I think. Stefanie, something that stays with you for years has got to be good, and a real influence on you, in one way or another. Courtney — I don’t know Conroy, and I probably should! Kelly — it’s interesting how influence works itself out in other disciplines. And I know it’s a hard question to answer! RhiGirl — interesting choices!

  13. Hmmm…I don’t know what mine is, don’t think I even have such a book in my life. Isn’t that weird? I think when it comes to emulating authors, for me, it’s often “the author of the moment” who sort of gets blended in with all the other past “authors of the moment.” So for instance, right now, Rose Macaulay is being introduced round and is mingling with everyone else.

  14. It’s funny, but of all the books I read and all the books I’ve read, and all the books I’ve *loved*, I always find it difficult to choose a ‘favourite’. But I like Birkerts’ definition – the book that you know best, to its bones – because it releases you from any critical debts. It isn’t like making a judgement as to the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read.

    I suppose mine would be Pat Barker’s WW1 novel, ‘Regeneration’, which I’ve read maybe 5 times. It’s relatively short, only 200-250 pages, but I always find it incredibly moving, a startling indictment of the horrors of warfare, both mental and physical. I like that it has no actual violence in it – it focuses on the time that the poet Siegfred Sassoon spent in a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked officers in Scotland between 1915-16 (the same hospital, incidentally, as Wilfred Owen). It does a brilliant line in character portraits and in the strange disconnect between physical pain and mental anguish. I would recommend it to anyone.

  15. Ooh tricky. I guess Camus’s novels have to come into this category because they are useful for so many things and so I often think of them and refer to them. So The Outsider and The Plague. Otherwise, Colette’s Cheri, just because I love it so.

  16. That’s a nice image, Emily — introducing the “author of the moment” to all the other authors that have influenced you. Victoria, that sounds like a wonderful book! Litlove — I have Cheri on my shelves waiting for me — I shouldn’t wait too long to read it, should I? :)

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