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Favorite Books, Part One

Karl Giberson

Writer’s Log: Stardate 12-1-10

I spent an hour today at MIT in the office of a prominent science writer. In the middle of our conversation he had to take a phone call and I spent an awkward 15 minutes, trying to pretend I wasn’t listening. To amuse myself I inspected his bookcase, one of my favorite exercises and a great window into people’s personalities.

His bookcase had an engaging overlap with mine. I would estimate that more than 25% of his books also sit on my shelves.  Prominently displayed on his shelf was Richard Rhodes’ magisterial volume, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a sprawling 800 page masterpiece and one of my all-time favorite books. When my friend got off the phone we talked a bit about this book and it turns out it was one of his favorites as well.

This got me thinking—as I often do—about the books that I think are the “best.” What are our favorite books? It is daunting to pick a few samples from the rich bookcase of our memories and set them on a shelf labeled “best.” How do we think about such a list?  Are these books we simply enjoyed reading? Are they books that shaped our ideas? Are they important books? Well-written? Influential? Are these books we want others to read?

I think there should be only one criterion for a book to be “best.” It must be enjoyable. This is misleading, of course, for sometimes the pleasure of reading can come from factors other the book itself. I tend to like books that I read in my gazebo more than ones I read in my car.  But this single criterion saves me the hard work of analyzing why I enjoyed the book. 

I am going to post my list tomorrow, in case something interesting occurs to me while I am sleeping.