Telling me your single favorite book won’t actually tell me much about you. It is but one data point, a tiny thread in the tapestry of you. Give me a handful of your favorite books, though, and then some patterns may emerge from the noise. Looking for repeated motifs in the books you read has two benefits. One, it’ll be easier to gauge whether you’re likely to enjoy a given book you haven’t read yet. And two, it may help you know yourself a little bit better.
A friend recently asked me if I thought my favorite movies revealed anything about me. She’d seen a discussion about this on Twitter and found it revealing for herself. For me, this question crystallized my love for very cinematic cinema. Music, visuals, and dialogue all contribute in equal measure in personal faves of mine like Jurassic Park and The Third Man. It was tougher to come up with thematic connections in the storytelling, however. The next morning, still mulling over the question, I wondered if my favorite books would bear more food for thought. I told myself to shoot from the hip, to list favorite books without worrying about whether they’re well-respected or intellectually rigorous. (Speed is another of my favorite movies, after all; an intellectual I am not.)
The first three books that jumped to mind were Moby Dick, Rebecca, and The Secret History. It was comical how immediately the theme linking these stories jumped out: tales of obsession gone horribly wrong. I invite you to do this same exercise. Don’t overthink. Just list 3-5 books, straight from your heart. Jot them down to keep yourself honest. And then ask yourself a few questions.
What’s Your Literary Style?
When it comes to finding the patterns in your favorites, you may first see stylistic similarities. Are your favorite books written by authors who are birds of a feather in some way? Perhaps your books all have multigenerational plot lines, zippy pacing, or first person perspectives. Without your books to consult, I can only walk you through my process with my faves. Among my three books, meticulously crafted prose ties them together. I know I’m a sucker for prose that verges on purple, and all three authors walk this line boldly.
My penchant for stunning sentences and hefty vocabularies, while it may seem like a purely aesthetic preference, does reveal something true about me. I love drama and beauty. I’m not a minimalist. I like my art to make big gestures. And I see how this carries through into my non-reading life, especially in the way I express myself. I wear bold, colorful clothes, I live in a brightly-painted house, crammed with books and textiles and antique teacups. I replace boring light fixtures with stained glass and chandeliers. It’s a lot, and I like it that way. This wasn’t especially surprising to notice. But it is interesting to see how this love of beautiful excess pervades my life. Onto the next question.
What are the Running Threads?
The themes that linked my favorite books, however, surprised me. If you’d asked me whether my favorite topic to read about is obsession, I wouldn’t have said yes. But all three of my books center specifically on obsessions that go wildly awry, ruining lives in their wakes. Moby Dick has the famous white whale. Rebecca has the titular character haunting the second Mrs. de Winter. And The Secret History follows college students who get waaaay too into the classics.
Maybe your uniting theme crashes into your brain like the Kool Aid Man, as it did for me. Or it might take more time to think about. It’s time well spent! No matter how plot-driven you think a book may be, it is saying something deeper, through the author’s intention or not. We even have a guide to help. You can also read some reviews if other people’s insight into the book might help. Then you’re ready for the next question to consider.
Is it a Mirror or a Window?
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a groundbreaking researcher in children’s literature, first posited the idea that books can be mirrors or windows for readers. They can reflect our experiences back to us, showing us we aren’t alone. Or they can provide new perspectives we’ve never had access to before. Dr. Bishop’s theory applies well to the patterns in favorite books, I believe.
What I found curious about my clear fascination with obsession is that I don’t think of myself as needing this particular cautionary tale. I don’t have an obsessive nature. This has upsides, as it’s easier for me to let go of something I once loved but is no longer serving me well. A sense of loneliness accompanies this tendency, however, because I lack the ardor other people hold for their favorites. Sometimes I see how much friends love Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, etc., and I long to experience feelings that strong.
I can see now that reading about obsession is giving me a window into a life I don’t fully understand. Why am I attracted to the stories where obsession comes with a body count? Perhaps I want to soothe my ego a bit, to reassure myself that my less obsessive nature is not so bad after all. Or maybe I just love drama. It’s probably a little of both.
Although my favorites are windows, perhaps yours are mirrors. If you like reading stories about underestimated women winning the day, maybe that’s a narrative you see for yourself. Or if you seek out stories about the rippling effects of trauma, perhaps you’re grappling with your own. These patterns can get pretty incisive, pretty fast, I must say, if you’re willing to get a little vulnerable.
What to Read Next?
Now that you’ve found your pattern and classified it as a mirror or a window, what will you do with that knowledge? For myself, I think it would be useful to seek out a mirror or two, for balance. Or maybe a window into a world that feels unfamiliar in a different way, for a new view. Or I can lean into it. It’s a tempting idea, going to my library and bookstore and asking the folks working if they can help me find my next fave, something with obsessive characters, a tragic ending, and lush prose. I know what I like.