Take a minute to think about that question. Not just a good book, not one that just stands out in your mind, which one is your favorite book? It’s a question that English majors are annoyingly familiar with and one that they are also all too happy to answer.
So think about it. What is your favorite book?
When my book history professor posed this question to our class, my answer was so easy, I hardly had to think about it. My favorite book is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Everyone went around the classroom excitedly revealing their favorite books. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Cloud Atlas, Harry Potter, to name a few contenders. We were all proud of your literary favorites, to which our professor said: None of you answered my question.
You’re probably feeling the same way that I felt in my stiff, plastic desk chair. What? We all kind of looked at each other, thinking, “Is he for real?” while our professor hosted a huge, sh*t-eating grin.
“I asked you what about your favorite book, not your favorite story,” he clarified.
Of course, we can take a moment and say, “You’re being incredibly pedantic here because the words ‘book’ and ‘story’ are frequently used interchangeably.”
To which he would have replied, “Yes, but they are not fundamentally the same thing.”
At which point I would have just hit my head on my desk.
He went on to explain how the text can be transmitted through different kinds of books. Such as a hardcover book transitioning to a softcover edition. And we’ve all seen movie-variant covers of our favorite YA novels, or the numerous illustrated covers for the Harry Potter series. Even covers of some of our literary classics abroad boast different covers and trim sizes.
So, he asked us again: What is your favorite book?
It gives you pause to think. We don’t normally think about the book itself, we’re often only concerned with the text inside the book; we’re here to read not to analyze the physical composition of said book. The class got eerily quiet. We’ve never thought about books in that way because we have only ever really thought about the text.
Even I was at a loss. My copy of The Alchemist—my favorite story—was a beautiful 25th anniversary edition that had been gifted to me on my seventeenth birthday. It’s got a beautifully illustrated cover and ragged edges, but it’s not my favorite. Truth be told, it took a lot of thinking. I started to mentally rifle through my personal library and I’m sure I wasn’t remembering every single book I’ve ever come into contact with.
But there was one book that did stand out. It’s my old copy of The Wizard of Jenolan originally published in 1993. It’s a large, illustrated children’s book by Nuri Mass. The dust jacket is beat-up and torn in some places, and the book itself is a bit rough around the edges. Part of the harcover is torn and frayed, and I’m sure there are some bent pages in there too. There is something about the physical wear that really makes this book special; seeing how it has aged and weathered over the years through my hands and through my parents’ hands…it’s indescribable.
Other people’s answers shared a common theme too: books that had been touched in some way, either by a relative’s hand leaving a loving message or an author’s signature. Even old books with handwritten notes in the margins made it onto the list. What stuck out was the physicality of the book as a personal object and the interactions that each of us had had with said book.
It set a humble tone for the duration of the course: ignore the text, focus on the book. Think of the font choice, the design of the cover, the folios*, the margins, the paper, the binding…think about the book separate from its contents. This course, History of the Book, became one of my favorite courses (and simultaneously a course that I loathed,) and still influences a lot of my thinking about books as physical objects, separate from the text within.
So, let me ask again: What is your favorite book?