Day 1: My Favorite Book

It’s day one of the Thirty Day Book Challenge, and I honestly thought that deciding on a favorite book would be a much more difficult process. I was convinced that I would spend hours going through a seemingly inexhaustible list of books, only to be able to, maybe, narrow it down to a list of five or so “favorites.” I thought that “favorite” was way too strong a word to use, and far too absolute. Moreover, as I’ve written before, I find that books change with each reading; our relationships with them changing as we grow and change ourselves. As Eco argued in his many works regarding literary interpretation, we bring so much of ourselves into our understanding of a text, that it is impossible for an interpretation to remain static, and if that’s the case, then how can a book that was my favorite at twenty, still be my favorite at nearly forty?

As it turns out, however, I do have a favorite book, and it was a surprisingly easy decision to make. My favorite book is Aldous Huxley’s Island. It became my favorite book the first time I read it, and although it has been challenged from time to time by other wonderful works, a simple revisit to the island of Pala and I am reminded why this book continues to move me in ways that I find it difficult to describe. And although my understanding of it has changed over the years, each time I read it I fall in love with it again… and again.

For those that haven’t read it, Island is Huxley’s counter-point to his earlier Brave New World. It’s a novel about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist Will Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. The very first line of the novel is a wake up call, not only to Farnaby, but to the reader as well, with the mynahs calling us to pay “attention” to the “here and now,” and it gives us the first glimpse of the perfect world that Huxley has created for his Pala denizens; a world unmarred by rampant consumerism, a society of choice and freedom, a culture rooted in both intellect and introspection where kindness and empathy are lauded, and one in which every moment is lived and experienced.  It was his last major work, and very much a culmination of his philosophical and sociological intellectual peregrinations.

I’ve owned countless paperback copies of the novel, each read and reread to the point of destruction; their spines held together by tape, pages wavy and curled from contact with water after being read by the pool, on the beach, in the bath, and ink from my annotations running into the text rendering the pages nearly illegible. I also have a hardcover first edition (one among a small collection of Huxley first editions that I am a proud owner of), that was given to me by a good friend as a birthday present many years ago, and is still one of my most prized possessions. My current reading copy was stolen out of my classroom back in November when I last reread the book, and that particular copy had a veritable archaeological treasure trove of layers of annotations dating back about twelve years. Needless to say, I am sad to have lost it.

Back in November, I wrote a post titled “The Pull of Huxley” and soon after I reread Island. As I mentioned earlier, each successive reading of a book yields varying interpretations and experiences, and this latest reading of Island was no exception.  Like with every other time I’ve read it, the book did, as any good book should, take me out of myself and force me to look at things differently, but unlike other times when the book seemed intensely personal and introspective, this last time the book seemed to speak to the larger global, political, economic issues at hand.

Turn on the news at any given time of the day or night and what we see and hear is more reminiscent of Huxley’s dsytopian Brave New World, than his peaceful Island. In a world as full of division, dogmatism, and belligerence as the one we live in today, reading Island reminded me that, at the very least, I can make the world a better place for myself, my family, and those around me. It is easy to forget that we have the ability to create our own little Palas, even if only on a small scale. This was also the first time I’d read the book as a parent (the last time I read it was a year or so before I had my daughter), and this time around Huxley seemed to be speaking to that part of my life, reminding me to raise my daughter to be someone who lives openly, compassionately, and thoughtfully. One thing does remain the same with each subsequent reading of Island, however, and that is that it never ceases to challenge me, and anyone who reads it, to be better, to live in the present, to be more mindful our ourselves, our world, and each other, and to regard kindness as a true virtue.

It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’

This book is my favorite because it opened my eyes at nineteen, and because it continues to open my eyes, even at thirty-nine. I suspect the same will be true in five, fifteen, and twenty-five years from now. It is my favorite because it reminds me that humanity can, despite all of the terrible things that we do, be a force of good in this world. And quite simply, it is my favorite because it is a book that reminds me why I love to read.

Now, close your laptops and go get a copy of Island, and remember…

“Attention,” the articulate oboe was calling.

“Attention. Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.

“To attention,” said Dr. MacPhail.

“Attention to attention?”

“Of course.”

While looking up an image of the Island first edition, I came across this image of the first page of the novel, with notes in Huxley’s hand, and it was too good not to share. I found the image here.

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22 thoughts on “Day 1: My Favorite Book

      • Funny how a name change will change the writing style. I am not a fan of this type of writing, the genre that the Gunslinger Series falls under, but this series of books grabbed me so much. Every major book he wrote was tied into this series.
        I love your writing by the way.

  1. Island has now gone on my to-be-read list. But I’m honestly not sure that I have a candidate for favorite book of my own. Instead, I have a FLOOD of candidates. They would include The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, Native Son by Richard Wright, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (MUCH better than the film), A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (riveting!), Endless Love by Scott Spencer, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (a huge influence on my view of life and evolution), The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and about two dozen other books that I can’t even think of right now.

    • All such good books… I LOVE Fowles, and if I started to think of non-fiction (which is what I mostly read), the list would be endless. I’ll tell you, it was by no means an easy decision to make!

  2. Wow. I really need to read Island NOW. I just recently re-read Brave New World, but this book sounds it’s on another level. Definitely on my “to-read post-haste” list! My favorite book is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust for the reasons I state here: http://thehaints.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/the-way-by-proust/. It’s a little cliche, but fits into your paraphrase of Eco’s theory. I absolutely LIVED this book while I was reading it. I was sad to see it end.

  3. For me? I don’t know. I seldom re-read books and so, if you define a ‘favorite book’ as one that evoked powerful emotions at the time I read them (and I have strong memories of those emotions, if not of the book’s text), and changed my life and worldview, then
    Catch 22. Midnight’s Children. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Brothers Karamazov. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. In Dubious Battle. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill A Mockingbird. A Tale of Two Cities.

    • Such a great list. I have to say that “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,” and “Catch-22” (along with many others) are on that list that have challenged Island. They have all been favorites at the time that I’ve read them. In fact, I’d say that Calvino is probably my number one or two favorite author (along with Eco and Borges). Its such a hard thing to do to say that something is the “favorite.”

  4. “I’ve owned countless paperback copies of the novel, each read and reread to the point of destruction; their spines held together by tape”
    Now that’s the sign of a true fan!
    Good for you!

  5. Pingback: Day 2: My Least Favorite Book | Intelligent Life

  6. It’s hard to pick one favorite book, I have different favorites for different reasons and times. Does non-fiction count (including spiritual texts)? Does poetry count? Plays? Shakespeare didn’t write “books,” but scripts for the stage, so that’s a tough one.

    But, if it’s fiction, my favorite stories are the Ramayana, or Tolkien’s Hobbit/Ring Cycle. It depends on whether I’m feeling Eastern or Western at the time! Both tales take me on the most incredible journeys, no matter how many times I’ve read them. But then there’s The Little Prince, a little book that has given me the biggest joy over the years. I guess these are my top three.

    • It was really difficult to pick a “favorite” for that reason. I think, much like with music, it depends on context. And you’re right about genre….

      I went with fiction as the unwritten rule for this one, and I went with Island because, well, of the reasons I wrote above. That book just holds a unique place for me. I did consider The Little Prince, too, but am saving that one, and the Hobbit, for a later day’s challenge. 🙂

  7. Pingback: How We Read Our Books |

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