I have a “favorite books” shelf where I keep—duh—my favorite books. These are not necessarily the very best books I’ve read—though many are quite good. (I’m sure Joseph Conrad would be relieved to hear that Leslie Pietrzyk thinks Heart of Darkness is “quite good.”)
Often, I put books there that feel exactly right in the time I read them, which explains how both Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero are still on this shelf. I will defend BLBC…I still use it as an example in classes to illustrate second person point of view (though I admit that a certain “revelation” at the end seemed pulled from virtually nowhere), but I’m not sure how LTZ would hold up upon rereading. So: I’m not planning to reread it. (An interesting aside: once I was talking to a poet about the idea of the “favorite books” shelf and how some things end up there that aren’t exactly great books but evoked a special time and place for me. He agreed—and promptly cited BLBC and LTZ as two on HIS shelf! A new parlor game for writers: what are the books on your favorites shelf that you’re most embarrassed by?)
In my obsessive quest for order and discipline, I try to limit the space of this shelf, so that if I want to add a book, I really have to take one away. (This is after the shelf is crammed tight and books are stacked sideways on top as high as possible.) So for me to add a book is a huge deal. I have to consider it a pretty seriously unflawed book to get in there. Most recently, I added Intuition by Allegra Goodman and Old School by Tobias Wolff. I thought about adding White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, but didn’t. In fact, as I write this, I’m reconsidering Old School. And, actually, I’m not sure I love-loved the ending of Intuition. It’s a tough thing, getting to be on this shelf and staying on, as it should be. Every reader should be so demanding; every serious writer should aspire to reach this shelf (even knowing the impossibility of the endeavor).
But what books really stand up, year after year after year? Which books would I not dare remove? Some standards—The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, My Antonia, The Sun Also Rises—and some surprises—Monkeys, The Mezzanine, Bombardiers, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Not to discriminate, poetry—Whitman, Eliot, Mark Strand—and non-fiction—Rivethead, Poets in Their Youth, Into Thin Air, Last of the Curlews—are also represented. But by far, most of my favorite books are novels.
I’m sure a smart therapist or a cheesy personality quiz on the internet could tell me exactly what all this means, what it all adds up to: these titles, the proportion of novels to non-fiction, that I cling to Less Than Zero. But I simply like staring at these books from time to time, their haphazard titles the only true story of my life.