This month's Classic Club meme asks, "What is your favourite classic book?"
How to pick a favourite? It seems like the unanswerable question, the answer of which changes with moods, seasons, and circumstance. There is no favourite book, no favourite classic, any more than there is one frame of mind. That's why I love reading, particularly classics, they all fit something. If I had to pin down a certain author as my favourite, it would be Zola, but what good is Zola if you want to escape the world and he throws you right into it? If I wanted to relax, how could Virginia Woolf help when she needles and shocks, so inspiring it makes one's head spin. If I was in a serious frame of mind, I couldn't pick P. G. Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome, and if I wanted some fun, I couldn't turn to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Answering this question depends upon my frame of mind right now this second, and moods are fragile. It could all change in half an hour. Whatever book I pick, I would want to change tomorrow.
As it's all down to the moment, I have to look back at which book was perfect then, the book suited my mood and circumstance better than any other book ever has, but that means that whatever I pick, I may never be in the mood to pick it again. I just don't have that universal. I'm capricious, I suppose. I loved Paradise Lost, but I can't say I understood it as well as most, but I was proud of what I did get out of it. I was happy to have finally read it, and pleased that I enjoyed it so much, but I certainly don't know it, and could I really pick a book as my favourite if I don't know it? Jane Eyre, I think, might have been the first classic I ever read, and not only did I love the story, but I learned that classic literature isn't frightening or untouchable. But it's been about a decade since I read it, however much affection I have for it (though I do want to return to it). And any of Charles Dickens: from Dickens I learned that classic literature is as relevant today as it was then, and for that I am grateful to Dickens, so I'll always have a lot of affection for him even if I don't love all of his books. My favourite Dickens is Great Expectations, and I do have that love, but Great Expectations is not my favourite book. Though, sometimes, it might be.
And Germinal - the thirteenth of Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart, I remember saying that it came at the right time, that it was exactly what I needed. It reflected my mood like a mirror (though, I have to say, Germinal is about miners in the French Second Empire, so I can't say it matched my circumstances) and inspired me to read more Zola, then more French literature, and then more non fiction so I could learn about the Second Empire. It has had the most impact on me, but there's something stopping me from calling it my favourite. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, I once said, was perfect, and at one time I would have called that my favourite, but, as things are at the moment, I'm not drawn to return to it. But, maybe that isn't the mark of a favourite.
Perhaps all this indecisiveness is down to my plans for this evening. After I've written this, I'm going to reply to a few emails and then pull the chair close to the fire, leave the curtains open so I can watch the trees in the wind (keeping a close eye on one particular tree - the winds here have been very strong, and this one tree is the one that, if it fell, would come through our roof), and read Middlemarch. I'm looking forward to it so much, but Middlemarch is no favourite. I'm enjoying it the second time around (I'll blog more at the end of the week), but I couldn't ever imagine saying it is my favourite. All the same, yes, I'm looking forward to settling down with it.
I do have plenty of favourites, though! It really is all about the moment, and there are infinite moments.