The Trouble with Favorites
December 27, 2018
As an English major, one question I am often asked is: “Who is your favorite author?” I hate that question. I assume that the person asking has no idea what it’s like to study literature. If I went into college with one favorite author, I certainly didn’t come out with one. I like to read a variety of authors in a variety of genres. I might have favorites in a particular genre, but even then there is generally more than one, and those I like can change depending on my current situation in life. But there are some that I consider timeless, authors I still turn to over and over again.
When I want to read a mystery, I pick up Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Last year my husband and I read The Secrets of Wishtide by a new mystery writer named Kate Saunders and we are anxiously waiting for her to write another one. For the past few years, though, the mysteries I have enjoyed the most are the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. Flavia is a precocious pre-teen in 1950s England who manages to get involved in quite a few murder investigations. I’m amazed at how well a septuagenarian man can write in the voice of a young girl and make me believe it.
I also enjoy reading biographies and histories. For the most part, I choose these books based on my interests at the time, whether it’s a historical figure or time period that fascinates me. Sometimes, I read a history book as research for my writing, to help me build the world my characters live in. The exceptions are the writers William Hague and Claire Berlinski. Their writing styles are so readable, I would probably read anything they write. Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce helped me to see that politicians can be good and serve God, while Berlinski’s book about Margaret Thatcher belongs in a category of its own.
As far as the classics are concerned, what I read depends on the mood I’m in. I might read Elizabeth Gaskell or Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen. In the past few years I’ve discovered just how much I like Sir Walter Scott, after reading Ivanhoe and The Antiquary. Classic authors are my favorites as a whole. They are able to weave an interesting story with a large cast of characters, while also revealing the complexities of human nature.
If I need a laugh, I turn to P.G. Wodehouse or, again, Alan Bradley’s mysteries. Flavia de Luce makes me laugh out loud and if the classics reveal our complexities, Wodehouse reveals our absurdities.
When I was a teenager I went through a phase where I refused to read fantasy books, but now those are the books I read most often. The series that inspire me the most are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. These also happen to be the two series that my sister convinced me to read and that changed my mind about fantasy. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be the writer I am today. I also like to read Shannon Hale’s books. Her writing voice reminds me of my own.
Instead of, “Who is your favorite author?”, maybe a better question would be, “Who do you enjoy reading right now?” It’s a question that needs to be asked often, since the answer is likely to be different every time. Life is always changing, so what I’m reading is changing, too.
If I had to choose just one author—well, I’ll save that for another post, as well as why I always hesitate to say who it is.
Originally Published October 2017