They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Living as we do, however, where a collective obsession with aesthetic perfection is often in the forefront, it is hard to avoid. We care, far more than we should, what others think, and have inextricably linked the choices we make with what they say about us to the world.
I have succumbed to designing my personal preferences to fit the social standard, having spent two full semesters in college lugging an artfully tattered hard copy of Ulysses (yes, hard, bloody copy) everywhere I went in the hopes that the adorable lit grad from the 9th floor stacks might notice me and my worldliness. And it's followed me to New York; I'm one of the many who's found herself scoffing at the brazen pretentiousness of a fellow L train passenger as he peruses the latest Franzen novel or clings to a dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest. Few of us are guiltless when it comes to shoving people into cultural corners.
We’ve all asked and been asked the question, "What is your favorite book of all time?" It’s a question that makes me squirm with discomfort, and I’m immediately overwhelmed with the anxiety that comes with having to whittle down to one the countless stories that have affected me throughout the years. More than this, perhaps, I must admit I instantly wonder what my choices will say about me: How much does what we read and what we choose to be seen with, reflect upon our character? And are our choices of “favorites” true ones, or are they shaped entirely by what we hope they say about us? Of course, one shouldn’t instantly measure their go-to against the ever-fluctuating scale of cultural cool but, alas, we often do.
How many times have your guy friends, young and old, cited The Catcher in the Rye as their favorite novel? For many, title character Holden Caulfield is the ultimate moody young man, angry at the world, resentful of authority and unappreciated in his genius. Yet, are these the qualities we see in the person carrying the book? The great number that claim kinship in spirit with this anti-establishment teen rebel is striking, particularly considering that his apathetic demeanor is a response to the conformist or “phony” nature of adult society.
What if you’re partial to a certain genre? Does being crazy for Lord of the Rings trilogy relegate you to perpetual geekdom or as someone requiring escape from the real world through epic fantasy? And does loving Lolita in public instantly associate you with… well, you get the picture.
Perhaps, in the case of Caulfield-lovers, what we choose to publicize as our favorite books highlight all that we wish we could be, not what we necessarily recognize in ourselves, but that which we someday hope to. But are the stories that truly speak to us so very indicative of our characters in the first place? I, for one, adore the entire Calvin and Hobbes series — for me, they have a greater capacity to inspire that curiosity and imagination that came so naturally in childhood than any Twain or Proustian epic. But, if I were to bring a copy of Yukon Ho! to the New York City Public Library, might I be scorned as unserious or immature? Why this compulsion to conceal treasured texts like shameful lovers under the bed?
Books are to be enjoyed, and what's the use of having such a rich variety of options if we are all to just mold our tastes to the current flavor of the times? Maybe the stories we love do speak to our true nature, maybe not. If Nicholas Sparks is who tugs at your heartstrings then go ahead, pour that wine and grab a box (or more) of Kleenex. If loving Harper Lee means no man may ever match up to Atticus Finch, then so be it.
Regardless, whatever is on your best books list, be they listed as top dogs amongst the masses, or obscure and resonant with only you, do what you cannot to let popular opinion shape how they affect you. Brandish that much loved copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and own it. But if Bret Easton Ellis is among your top ten, maybe don’t skim American Psycho whilst blasting Huey Lewis and the News on your iPod in public.