How To Choose Your Favorite Books When Choosing Favorites Feels Unnatural

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

As I write this, February dwindles, and all I have to show for my favorite books of 2021 is a scrawled list of 23 titles that rendered me the most wonderful kind of speechless. For weeks, share my faves, or another variation, remained on my to-do list. Feeling too untimely, I quit adding the task to my sticky note every Sunday. Instead, my avoidance begged me to wonder, Why is choosing favorites so difficult? And, What is a favorite anyway?

In the first episode of Hulu’s adaptation of High Fidelity, “Top Five Heartbreaks,” Zoë Kravitz’s Rob Brooks and David H. Holmes’s Simon Miller, then dating, chat at a bar. Simon shares his “theory,” a case for lovers “lik[ing] most of the same things”: “The things that you like are…more important than what you are like.” Perhaps knowing that, as Rob says (agreeing with Simon), “Shit matters” applies unnecessary pressure on me selecting favorites.

I find myself a tiny bit jealous of folks who can rattle off their favorite books. And yet, I want to know their reasons, wish to ask follow-up questions. An unabashedly Virgo part of me urges, Please show your work. If announcing your favorites lulls you into a stillness, these four questions may help reveal yours.

What Books Do You Reread The Most?

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon book cover

Revisiting certain prose and poems comforts me. Returning to a 5-star book feels like pulling on a worn-in T-shirt and sitting in the companionable silence of an ever-fascinating beloved. In a Thresholds conversation with host Jordan Kisner, Kiese Laymon, the author of Heavy, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and Long Division, states, “But love necessitates revisitation. How do you love some shit that you don’t go back to?”

With this in mind, the titles that you invest the most days reveling in their pages could highlight favorites. A few of my go-to rereads, books I have finished twice and some include: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast (read four times); Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, translated by Edith Grossman (three times); and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (on page 11 of my third read). If you reread, what books have you reached for more than once?

What Books Do You Think About The Most?

When talking about books that move me, I often gush something like, I can’t stop thinking about X. Meaning: the book is taking up beachfront real estate in my brain. If a title keeps haunting me, I wade into learning more about its origin story, how long it took to write, the author’s craft, and the stories touching their lives. I seek out podcasts, interviews, and book reviews. Sometimes I stumble upon social media pearls.

Scanning my open windows across devices and recent downloads, hearts, and saves, I plan on spending more time with The Boy with a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund, Dear Memory by Victoria Chang, and The Renunciations by Donika Kelly. Surely, deepening our understanding of a work counts as time spent with it. So, what poems and passages frequent your thoughts? What books and authors are you Googling?

What Books Do You Recommend The Most?

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz book cover

For joy, love, and money, I recommend books. Even though I personalize recommendations for each reader, sometimes I encounter a book I hope everyone reads. Titles I consider forward-to-the-group-text good. Titles I consider buy-for-everyone-I-adore good. These, my go-to recommendations, include Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses, translated by Christina MacSweeney; Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House; Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem; Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina; Mira Jacob’s Good Talk; T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls; and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After.

While reading “44 Writers on Their Favorite Books to Give as Presents” via Literary Hub, I look for favorites among favorites. T Kira Madden and Karen Russell gift Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Crystal Hana Kim and Laura van den Berg gift How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. And, for the poetry fans, Kyle Lucia Wu gifts The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi. Is there a book that you recommend or give again and again to dear ones? Both could indicate your favorites.

What Authors Do You Recommend The Most?

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones book cover

Instead of a single title, maybe you’re drawn to a writer’s body of work. The first time I read Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones in 2015, I shared “History, according to Boy” with close friends. I carried “Mercy” in my purse for months. Nights after How We Fight for Our Lives published, I added it to my cart without a second thought then read it fresh out of the packaging. I suggest the collection and memoir with equal love. Of course, I added Alive at the End of the World (September 2022) to my preorder list.

All of this to say, instant-buy, instant-borrow, and instant-read authors can spotlight your favorites. I reserve special places on my bookshelves and stacks for Danez Smith, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Zeyn Joukhadar, to name several. If you want to read everything by an author, you could measure favorites this way, too.

Hopefully, considering these questions envelops you in an aura of confidence when confronted with that cumbersome inquiry, What’s your favorite book? By reading this, you probably sense my all-time favorites. So, I return to my crinkled scrap paper featuring last year’s standouts. Using the above guidance, I — in honor of High Fidelity and with my fingers crossed tight for a second season and more — name my “top five” favorite reads of 2021: Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, Chet’la Sebree’s Field Study, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds, Taylor Johnson’s Inheritance, and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Now, please excuse me while I retreat under a soft blanket to read and reread.