ONE of the stock questions with which we sometimes plague our fellow creatures is: What is your favorite book? Like most trite questions, it is most unprecise. More correctly it should run: Which is your favorite book for such and such an occasion? Certainly people will have one favorite book during the fortunate and epic state of being a boy just hesitating whether to make himself a sling or to read Oliver Curwood; another when suffering from the confusion of puberty; another when over head and ears in love; still another for the greater and more serious part of life spent in hunting through the tresses with a comb for the first gray hair and its successors.
That, of course, is an old story; it is only surprising that while books are published ‘for children,’ or ‘adolescents,’ they are not also published with the express designation that they are for young donkeys or old graybeards, divorced husbands or lonely misanthropists. Even disregarding these differences of age, it is not every book, however good in itself, which suits every situation. For instance, the Bible is not particularly suitable as reading matter for a train journey. Poems are not usually put in dentists’ waiting rooms for patients to while away the time of waiting. A man does not envelop himself in Hugo’s Les Misérables with his morning coffee, but rather in the newspaper. Only the newspaper is made for the morning reader, with his mouth full of roll or hanging to a strap in the tram. Newspapers are the sails under which we sail into the full day. Magazines, on the other hand, are best read after the midday meal, while books, like love or orgies, are mainly a nocturnal occupation.
The matter becomes far more complicated as soon as we examine the various circumstances of life. If you are run down you choose reading matter which is like a good slice of meat; you do not want to nibble at something dainty, but to hack valiantly like a wood cutter at work; and you choose a fat novel with a good plot — if possible a thriller, but if not a thriller, then an adventure story, preferably seafaring. At a time of mild indisposition and when a prey to worry or overwork, your preference is for exotic, historic, or Utopian novels, mainly because these distant climes and ages do not really concern you.
In the case of sudden illness you long for some extremely exciting and absorbing reading which must not be sentimental and must end happily — in other words, a detective story. If the illness be chronic, you put aside detective novels and seek out something genial and hearty: probably it will be Dickens. A careful reader will note that Dickens and Gogol are authors who arouse a taste for food.
To what book one gives preference in the hour of death I have not yet investigated, but I am assured by a high authority on the subject that in jail and when life is in danger Dostoevski is not the author most easily digested; in carcere et catenis the most comforting books are said to be The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, or Stendhal’s Rouge et Noir.
On Sunday, people like to read essays, because in this way they can be mildly bored in an odor of sanctity; or classical works, to read which is considered ’the duty of every educated man.’ Sunday reading, on the whole, is rather like the performance of some honorable deed, while everyday reading resembles a profligate orgy. On summer holidays the best things to read are the old almanacs and annuals as far as they are to be found at one’s country lodgings; when there are none, one takes the local paper. In the autumn, the best person to read is Anatole France, because of his peculiar mellowness; in winter, readers will consume all possible sorts of fodder, and even put up with the bulky psychological novels which they markedly avoided in the summer.
Very fat novels are for bad weather and snowstorms; the worse the weather, the fatter the novel. In bed one does not read poetry, but prose; poems one reads perching lightly somewhere like a bird on a twig. On a journey a man will read Baedeker, the newspaper, the current chapter of a serial story, and topical pamphlets. When he has toothache he likes romantic literature, which he would scorn when he has a cold. When waiting for anything, — let us say a letter or a visit, — he prefers short stories, for instance Chekhov.
Besides these there are a great multitude of books which I am at a loss to classify, nor can I say in what exceptional circumstances they are read; I have not been able to get to the bottom of the subject.