Today is back to school time, which for many will mean answering everyone’s favourite get-to-know-you questions that usually start with “What’s your favourite _______” I can still hear the sad sighs escape my fellow students’ mouths when the teacher began the first class of the semester this way.
As a student I always dreaded being asked my name, a fun fact about me, and what my favourite book/movie/TV show is. Here’s the thing: I’m a student, there are no fun facts about me. And how dare you make me scavenge through the whole of my short life in 30 seconds, only to face the fact that nothing of note comes to mind?
If the fun facts question brings on existential despair, the “What’s your favourite _____” question rocks your very identity. Here you are in a room full of strangers who are silently judging you and you have to pick out one item of popular media that you not only truly like but that also best reflects your personality, isn’t in any way embarrassing, can safely put you into a clique of like-minded people who may or may not become your lifelong friends, and will not raise any follow-up questions. The last element is especially important because you may be quick enough to come up with an answer to what your favourite “thing” is, but I’ve yet to hear anyone successfully answer what the plot is of that movie/book/TV show on the spot. After all, that kind of pressure wipes our brains clean and a fumbling, bumbling, stammering explanation of the plot of Community is about as good for your rep as saying Jersey Shore.
When people ask why book X is your favourite, they’re usually waiting for you to explain its crazy awesome plot or super fantastic characters. For me though, neither of these things are what will necessarily make book or show X my favourite. I’m a voracious reader and TV watcher. I consume dozens upon dozens of stories every year. Even repeated viewings or readings make it hard to remember plot or character details. And that has never particularly been why I enjoy stories, whatever medium they come in. For me, the plot, the characters, the style of execution are important in the moment, to facilitate enjoyment. But they are not what leaves a lasting impression on me, nor are they the elements that can secure the book/movie/show a spot on my favourites list.
There are so many more elements to the experience of reading a book or watching a movie, aren’t there? There’s a reason why we endlessly search for the perfect nook when a book can be read literally anywhere and why we still go to a movie theatre with our date when we could watch a movie in the comfort of our homes. We attach meaning to the experience of consuming a story and oftentimes it is just as important as the actual story. It is that experience, the significance that I attach to that story, that ultimately helps me with that favourites list.
I can pick up any book on my shelf and remember how and when I got it (or who got it for me), why I chose to read it, the emotions it inspired while reading it, which season it was and where I sat, whether I read it quickly or slowly savoured every page… I only remember bits and pieces of Nabokov’s Lolita, but I remember my high school friends giving it to me for my birthday when I thought everyone had forgotten. It makes me think of summer heatwaves and melancholy and a genuinely surprising and hearwarming moment that my friends had gifted me. I read The Bell Jar when I was feeling really low and needed to feel a soul connection with a semi-fictional character whose pain exceeded my own, but who reminded me that the jar can lift and reveal a world and beauty beyond it. I read Love in the Time of the Cholera on the subway; it was the last book I read before I quit my first grown-up job. It is the only book that made me tear up in public, during rush hour no less, and I’m still not sure if it was because of Marquez’s heartbreaking, sensual writing or because finishing that book also signaled the end of a major period in my life. I know I loved the book. I cannot remember its plot.
I also cannot remember the plot line of every episode of Gilmore Girls, but the show always makes me feel cozy and nostalgic and ready for fall. And when I play Arrested Development, I enjoy the jokes but also remembering introducing my partner to the show when we first started dating. Breaking Bad may be considered one of the greatest TV shows in history, and while I could see that just about every element of the show is technically perfect, I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t make me feel something beyond it, regardless of how good it objectively is.
Ultimately I don’t think any of us really choose our favourite anything because it’s objectively the best, most perfect piece of something. We are drawn to certain books and movies and music and foods and places (and on and on) because they capture a feeling that we long to recreate over and over. That feeling may truly be triggered by the plot of a book. Or it may be triggered by a character(ization) or relationship in a TV show. Or the unmistakable voice of the author, colour palette chosen by the cinematographer, chord progression played by a musician, a scene (described through whichever sensory tool) that you recognize having experienced in this life or another… Or it may be that this thing you watch/read/listen/taste over and over simply reminds you of a moment when you knew that this is what life is all about. An aha moment of experiencing a universal Truth that only this thing you love can sire. The moment of eating a medeleine dipped in tea, if we’re going to get poetic.
I don’t know if our reasons necessarily have to be shared on your first day of class or first date or ever, if you don’t want to. But those reasons why we love X/Y/Z reveal who we are so much better than the answer itself. And unfortunately it’s usually the answer, not the reasons, that make the lasting impression. It is for this reason that I think deep down we all know that that dumb “what’s your favourite _____” get-to-know-you question is not a get-to-know-you question at all, and why we all quietly groan when we hear it.