Dear Cathleen (who asked me about books)

We were at dinner, two people at a table of seven, trying to make ourselves heard above the uncanny combination of too loud adult good time rock and roll, the roar of the bar crowd watching the basketball game, and the flitting conversations at our table which consisted of, at various times: the approaching Lady GaGa concert, the cost of scalped tickets for said concert, and the content of our meeting earlier in the day. You had remarked you had just purchased a new eReader, and as we compared the differences in e-Ink versus old fashioned paper, and the pros and cons of purchasing nonfiction online, the inevitable question rose up from the bottom of your stomach, through your esophagus and into your mouth, where it gathered strength between the spaces of your teeth before finding its footing at the tip of your tongue to launch forth into the air.

"What's your favorite book?"

I truly, madly, deeply hate that question.

I've often wondered if people who love to read, who relish the feel and look of a word on the page, can really look back into the thousands upon thousands of collected sentences and with utter confidence proclaim this or that work to be the very best book, the single favorite thing they have ever read. I can't do it, at least not with any sense of conviction.  I remember fumbling for a moment, taking a long drought from my pint (Newcastle, since it was the darkest draft they were serving) in an effort to hide my confusion while I fought to come up with an answer.

The first book to come to my head was Huckleberry Finn, so that was what I went with. It's not exactly untrue; I love Mark Twain, and I remember the joy Huckleberry Finn brought me the last time I read it: during the time I spent on a jury for a medical malpractice suit. It was the first book I read after my grandfather died, another man in my family who loved to read unreservedly. I had splurged a bit and bought the Mark Twain Library Edition, fully corrected, illustrated, and authorized by his estate. It was wonderful, and despite having read it at least two times previously, this was the first time I really felt the book, and connected with it on a level that went further than academic enthusiasm.

But my favorite book? Maybe it was in the seconds during and after my gave my answer, but that's not really the answer at all. Because just now, just before I started writing this post in fact, I had decided to re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and as I began the first few pages my mind drifted to the last time I had read something by Vonnegut (I think it was Palm Sunday), and how much I cherished every word he wrote, and how to Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions are some of the best books I've ever read and...

And so it goes.

The situation repeats itself, each time with a different author, a different work. In college Norman Mailer was a God, and my friend Jason and I would argue over whether Harlot's Ghost was truly better than Ancient Evenings or The Executioner's Song. Every time I see a mention or reference to David Foster Wallace I can't help but think of the colossal achievement that was Infinite Jest, a book whose like will probably never be seen again, and a writer whose suicide shattered me into a million pieces.

So much of my life is measured by books. My fondest memories of my father are bonding with him over JRR Tolkein and Clive Cussler novels, and as a kid there wasn't anything in the world better than a new Dirk Pitt adventure. My friend Mike introduced me in college to a dog-eared collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick, and stories like "The Short Life of the Happy Brown Oxford" and "Second Variety" opened an entire world of literate, charged science fiction from the sixties and seventies that would eventually lead me down an aisle where I chanced upon Harlan Ellison and Deathbird Stories, a book that changed my life. The first real vacation I took with my wife was accompanied by John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and my clearest memory of that time was my wife walking into the living room of our suite in the early hours of the morning, the sun coming in from the window and streaming across the couch where I lay crying, having just finished the last pages of the book.

Haruki Murakami and The Windup Bird Chronicle. Italo Calvino and If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Ed McBain and any of the early 87th Precinct novels. Tom Robbins and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. And yes, Huckleberry Finn and Slaughterhouse Five and others I'll remember minutes after I click the Publish button, and even more when I come back to proof this post a few days later.

And hopefully a dozen, a hundred more I have yet to read, but wait for me over the next horizon, on the next dusty shelf or the next virtual node.

Cathleen, you asked me an honest question, and in truth I fear I did not give you an honest answer. You asked me for my favorite book, and if I had it to do all over again I would try to give you the only answer I can feel good about, now, a day, a lifetime later.

They're all my favorite. Every single one.