I spend a lot of time having to tell people that I don’t have ONE favourite book. I have too many to name. I know that often what someone really wants, when they ask me about my favourite book, is just a recommendation for something to explore for themselves, or to see if our reading tastes coincide, but I end up taking the question literally and feeling stressed.
Having just finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, I know I feel a bit like Christopher Boone, its hero and narrator. I panic because instead of seeing a shelf of perhaps five or six great books, and narrowing it down to one for the sake of politeness and efficiency, I picture all the many bookshelves around my house, and at my parents’ house, and houses of friends I’ve visited, and in my student houses and in school and public libraries, which contain or contained books I’ve loved, and that have shaped me, and I know that there are many other books (unlike Christopher this time, who has a photographic memory) that I’ve adored but have forgotten, and I feel that I’m letting my reading experience down, and the authors down, and the stories down, and the person who asked me down, by not mentioning them all.
For example, the next time I’m asked I’ll probably forget to mention that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has instantly become one of my favourite books. It has everything I most love about reading:
- a very strong narrative voice from a mind that I constantly want to know better
- a mystery, from page one
- a sense of discovery about the world – I now know much more about Asperger’s, and maths, and Special Needs teaching (and Swindon, although to be honest I’m not sure that’s top of the list, sorry Swindon), and how the human brain works generally
- a sense of discovery about me – autism is part of the spectrum of all human brain development and in some of the descriptions I recognised the bits of myself that seem to verge on autistic sometimes. There were a couple of maths problems I really loved and wanted to discuss with my husband late at night when he was trying to sleep. He wasn’t so interested.
- kind, flawed, very real characters
- pictures. (Never grew out of liking a good picture in a book. I don’t think people do.)
- humour. Christopher Boone promises that there will be no jokes and yet almost every time he interacts with an exasperated adult, it’s very funny
- compassion, resolution, no mawkishness, but an ending that still made me want to cry with its satisfying beauty
Of course I’m not the first person to notice what a great book Mark Haddon has written. It’s inspired other great literature, won a bunch of well-deserved prizes and sparked an award-winning play in the West End – and now I think on Broadway – which I’d very much love to see.
I’ll think of aspects of this book often. When I remember, I’ll put it in my top 10. But there are so many books in my head that, like Christopher when he’s in a crowded place, sometimes my brain can’t cope and I have to shut it down a bit. And now, thanks to this book, I have a clear image of my panic, and it’s Christopher’s panic at Swindon Station, and that makes it easier to understand and to bear. And that’s what great books do.
Probably, if you were to ask me next time, I’d say my favourite book is Thank You Jeeves by PG Wodehouse, because I do very much adore anything with Bertie Wooster in it and Wodehouse is my favourite comic literary genius and it’s my default response. Or possibly Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers, because Lord Peter Wimsey is my favourite detective and I love a good mystery, or Middlemarch by George Eliot, because it captures the painful consequences of modernity better than any other novel. But in my head I’ll be in Christopher’s head in Swindon Station, and this is why.