Favorite books, they’re a badge of honor, a guilty pleasure, the perfect ally in helping you procrastinate cleaning your room, and occasionally, a clever way to vet if you want to be friends with someone.
The best part about them, they all have a story of their own, and sometimes, the story of why it’s your favorite is a hell of a lot more interesting than the story inside. Not always, but, yeah, some of that shit is just epic to get through.
Below is just that, a collection of the favorite books throughout my life . . . so far, and why I have bestowed on them the illustrious title of “favorite.”
by Richard Timothy
Fun fact: Having a favorite book doesn’t need to have anything to do with the words inside.
Growing up, I hated reading and yet I loved books. The tactile feel of paper in my hands, the tiny crackle and thrum of a page being turned, and the countless hours I’d spend making up stories thanks to imagination-inducing book covers. All of those things working in perfect harmony created my love affair with books . . . just as long as I didn’t have to read what was inside.
A conundrum? Sure, but my dyslexia had a way of making me feel about reading the same way I felt about eating my vegetables—I’d usually end up crying whenever I had to try either. The one thing you need know about dyslexia: Reading is hard.
When friends told me they read for fun, the concept came across as something a Bond villain would concoct to wreak vengeance on humanity because of that one time a drunk frat kid shaved his cat. And then they told me they just read their favorite book for the third time—what kind of sick freak; who does that? It took some time and it didn’t happen much, but over the years there have been books I have come to call “favorite.”
Fun fact: A book you hated reading can still become your favorite.
I encountered my first favorite book between fourth and fifth grade. I was forced to attend summer school, and the teacher, being a master of torture, had threatened that if I didn’t read every night, then he’d fail me and I’d have to stay in fourth grade again instead of moving to fifth grade with my friends. He was an absolute monster.
When I explained these horrors to my mom, she confused me.
First, she sided with me and gave me a hug, letting me know everything would be okay. Then she took the teachers side and suggested, “Let’s go to the library, and you can pick out your very own summer reading book. Whatever book you want.”
I wasn’t sold on the idea until she offered to make a batch of my favorite cookies when we got home. Twenty minutes later, we were off to the library.
When you hate reading, there are a number of factors to consider when selecting a summer reading book. First, font size. Bigger fonts = fewer words. Second, white space per page. I looked for excessive margins and small paragraphs. The more white on the page = fewer words. Last, page count. If you get the first two working for you, you can easily find a one hundred page book stretched out to around two hundred pages. Visually impressive, as long as no one looks at what’s inside the book.
Based on these criteria, I had a few books selected to choose from. The second book in my stack was The Box-Car Children by Gertrude C. Warner. The cover did have a certain appeal. A group of kids living in a train boxcar. I could relate to wanting my own place. I was still sharing a room with my brother, Mike, and that son of a—kept stealing my Legos. While examining the book, I was filled with an urgent and primal feeling—I had to pee. I just kept hold of The Box-Car Children and ran.
My two-and-a-half month relationship with this book was hell. If Satan was reincarnated as a book, it would have been this one. Every night I fought with that book. On the worst nights, I’d read only a sentence or two. On the best, I made it through a couple of pages. I dreaded bedtime because I knew reading would be required. I don’t condone book burnings, but this number had me considering making an exception.
Then, two weeks before school, the unexpected happened: the battle finally ended. I’d finished reading that damned book. And in the second after that realization, The Box-Car Children became my first favorite book. I still hated reading it, but I loved that I’d read it.
My dyslexia always made me feel slower, dumber than the other kids in my class. But by reading a book cover to cover, I had done something that the other kids did on a regular basis. For the first time since I realized I had a problem with reading, I felt normal. I was a regular kid, just like my classmates. I loved The Box-Car Children for giving me that feeling.
The other thing I’d learned: Even though I didn’t get along with reading, I could force myself to do it if I had to. Granted, it took a long ass time, but it was possible. This is also why the book remained my favorite until my eight grade year.
Fun fact: You don’t actually need to read a book for it to become your favorite.
Being thirteen taught me a very important lesson —deodorant is your friend. It also taught me it’s not cool to have a book you read in fifth grade be your favorite. I had friends reading and talking about Asimov, Heinlein, and the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms series, and I had nothing to offer. I did get good at asking questions about the characters on the covers. At least that way I could fake my way into reading related conversations with them.
I even considered adopting one of my assigned reading books as my favorite. I could have picked The Call of the Wild, The Pearl, The Outsiders, or To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a few. I had struggled through all of them, thanks to my literature classes. The problem was I hated them all. In my experience, they were all assignments. They had deadlines that kept me up until two or three o’clock in the morning reading because I read so slowly. They were then diagrammed and dissected, analyzed and discussed. They were all so much work that, in the end, they were all just collections of words that proved to be a pain in the ass and nothing more.
I considered taking the angle that I didn’t have a favorite book, as if there were no books out there good enough for me to call it a favorite. But that would mean I’d had to have read every book ever to be able to make that claim. Screw that.
The night A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs became my favorite book, I was sitting at the dinner table, alone, a little past 8 p.m. on a Thursday eating a bowl of Rice Chex. I liked their crunch better than the corn ones, but they got soggy a lot faster. I had to power chew it to make it through the bowl before they turned to mush. I was halfway through when Dave tapped me on the shoulder and held a copy of A Princess of Mars right in front of me.
Here’s the thing about sci-fi and fantasy book covers from the ‘70s and ‘80s: So many were vastly superior to the lingerie section of the JCPenney catalogue, and with this cover . . . can I get a halleluiah? It consumed my thirteen-year-old mind, and by the time I realized I was still holding a spoon, my Rice Chex were mush.
Dave sat down across from me and started telling me about Edgar Rice Burroughs. This was a new experience for me. Dave was in high school, instantly making him one of the coolest guys I knew. As the oldest, most of our communication consisted of him telling me to get up and manually change the channel on the TV during the commercials. So having him start telling me about all about his favorite new book was new ground.
Over the next hour, he told me all about John Carter. Get this: He was an ex-soldier who gets teleported to Mars while escaping from native Apaches. And because of the gravity difference between Earth and Mars, he was super strong and could jump around like a superhero. On Mars, which Martians called Bar-something, John meets Tars Tarkas, a giant, green bug-man warrior who becomes his best friend. He also gets his own Martian dog, Woola, who can move almost as fast as he can. And last but not least, he finds a girlfriend, Dejah Thoris, who is a princess and doesn’t like to wear clothes. As a puberty-plagued teenager, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect story.
But it wasn’t the story of The Princess of Mars that made it my favorite book; it was the experience I got from my brother reading this book. He was always the older brother who made the rules and picked on us. The role of big brothers everywhere. But this was the first time I could recall him treating me like something more than a little brother. As he shared the story of John Carter, it felt like it did when I would talk to my other friends about books. For that hour, for the first time in my life, my brother was a friend instead of a pestering older brother. I didn’t realize that could happen until that night. The Princess of Mars gave me that, and for that reason alone it stayed my favorite book until the summer of ‘94 . . . and I didn’t have to read a single word.
Side note: It wasn’t until twenty years later that I actually did read this book. Full disclosure, my brother’s retelling was far superior to what I experienced. Sorry, Edgar, Dave tells your story better.
Fun fact: Turns out, the end of the world can be the subject matter for the greatest book you’ll ever read.
Once freed from the academic tedium called school, I told higher education to suck it and dived headfirst into the job market. During that year, I purchased a few books, took comfort in not reading a single one all the way through, and filled up a notebook with really bad poetry, like you do.
During that summer my best friend, Kyle, returned from his first year at college and spent the night drinking cheap beer and talking about the wonders of college. As he polished off his fourth can, realization filled his face.
“I have something for you,” he said and reached into his backpack.
“I told you, I don’t smoke that.”
“Shut up.” He laughed and started digging through his backpack. “Have you ever read Good Omens?”
“Never even heard of it,” I told him.
His face lit up. “It’s amazing. It’s by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. He’s the one who did The Sandman comics. It’s about the end of the world, except so much more. This is a hysterical book.” He pulled out a disheveled paperback and handed it to me. “You have to read this.”
Skeptical I had to read anything, I said, “Thanks. I’ll check it out as soon as I finish my current book.” A total lie because I wasn’t reading anything, but a great way to put off any and all reading suggestions indefinitely.
The problem was apart from him loving The Doors, I trusted Kyle’s recommendations. He introduced me to most of my favorite bands: New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Bob Marley. He introduced me to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and DC Comics, and he explained the importance of concert t-shirts and rolling up your pant legs . . . and after a few years, the importance of not rolling up your pant legs. A very educational friend.
So yeah, he could be trusted. Then again, it was a book. It was his use of “hysterical” to describe the book that kept rolling around in my mind. Those words didn’t belong together. They were a complete oxymoron, like pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, or genuine imitation.
After a week of mulling it over, the book got the better of me and I finally took a peek. I only expected to make it through the first five pages as I had with every book I tried reading after graduation. At that point, my commitment to the book would be complete. If asked how I liked it, I’d lie and tell Kyle it was an amazing read and never speak of it again.
Starting with the first page, my face kept reacting to the words with an unfamiliar reading response. I kept smiling. Then came the line, “‘A demon can get into real trouble, doing the right thing.’ He nudged the angel.”
I laughed—out loud. I stopped reading. What just happened? Had I really just laughed? No, not possible. There’s no joy inside a book. It was the one irrevocable truth I knew. Apparently, not at true as I thought, because I’d actually laughed out loud while reading. Probably a fluke. I started reading again to find out for sure.
Fifty pages later, I took a peek at the clock: It was 1:30 in the morning. I had to be up in two-and-a-half hours for work. Stupid job—getting in the way of my reading. Woah, woah, woah. Where did that come from? I stopped reading mid-sentence and eyed the book’s cover. The little minx. Nothing about this book matched what I knew about reading. It wasn’t a punishment. When I got to sentences I had to reread so they’d make sense, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. Even reading slowly wasn’t a hindrance. The story had me, and all I wanted to do was find out what happened next.
I read every chance I got and finished the book three days later. I’d never read a book that quickly, and I haven’t since. Afterwards, I kept thinking about why I’d responded that way to this book. If I had use one word to explain what it was about Good Omens that made it my favorite book of all time, it would be “laughter.”
This book revealed to me that a story could be more than fun; it could be funny. That laughter showed me that reading a book wasn’t a struggle but a celebration, and not something you have to force yourself to finish. It showed me that humor and joy could be literary. I loved reading that book. And if that book was out there, maybe there were more that I would enjoy reading.
I turned into a born-again reader that summer, peddling literary joy to any willing read the good book. I gifted at least ten copies of Good Omens that summer alone. Even today, I always have a spare copy in my house to pass along to the occasional visitor who has yet to read my favorite book.
I ended up going to college with a focus on art, but after a few years I realized that painting never made me feel the way reading Good Omens did. I started writing more and painting less. Eventually, I shifted my focus and graduated with a degree in English.
My personal experience with reading Good Omens is a constant reminder for why I want to share humor in my writing. It’s the book that changed my life, and for that, it will always be my favorite.
Fun fact: You don’t actually need to read a book for it to become your favorite.