When some people find out that I am a lover of literature and music, they tend to ask, “What is your favorite song? What is your favorite book? What is your favorite poem?” I am always at a loss to answer these questions about favorites. How does one decide between Ode to a Nightingale and Annabel Lee? Why would a person limit their choices to these two? Why does there need to be a choice? What is this thing about favorites?
My tendency is to think that it is an idle question. It seems impossible to shine a light with its answer. Choosing one seems to relegate others. I don’t have a favorite and this seems to dull my appearance at parties where such things are asked with regularity. Is it one more iteration of the American chant of “We’re number one?”
Who was my favorite person? Who was my favorite student? Who was my favorite teacher? There is a similarity among all questions that begin “who was your favorite?” Is it not unlike asking a parent of multiple children “Who is your favorite?” I am always at a loss to answer and my wife would say that it is because I overthink it. She was say that it isn’t a pronouncement, just a light, party question.
I’ve never done well with light, party questions. I don’t see the value. If Thomas Mann, or Franz Kafka or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Alice Walker is my answer, does it really say anything about me or them?
What is your favorite food? Well sometimes it is potato chips but I do not wish to be defined by potato chips and I would not like to eat them every day. Again my wife objects and teases that I would like to eat them every day.
Sometimes it is couched differently. “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have three books, what would they be?” I have no idea. I assume that they would be the books with which I was stranded. Being stranded does not mean that you get to pick and choose. So why ask?
Do people who ask that question really wish an answer or are they just waiting to tell you what their favorites are? Why do they want you to know?
Maybe if the question were phrased, “Whose books or songs or poems do you really love?” I would find that question more palatable. Maybe it is why I am not the first choice for a party guest.
This question lingers with me though. What does it mean to have favorites? I had a favorite towel. I would use it every time I showered. My wife would warn me when she was about to wash it. I preferred it to the exclusion of all other towels. I have a favorite pair of jeans. I wear them every chance I get. I put off having them washed.
Expressing a favorite can be an act of vulnerability. My friend Howard once expressed that owls were his favorite images. He was inundated by them. The owls kept coming long after he wished that they would stop. It was an easy choice for people to get Howard an owl. After a point, each owl only furthered his regret at having mentioned a favorite. One becomes too easy a target with mention of a favorite.
In competition I always longed to play against someone better. Table tennis is my best example. I was quite good but what I longed to do was play with someone better. Losing did not matter. What mattered was playing better. It was a love of the experience, rather than a love of winning.
Favorites imply a winner, and then everyone else. I’m hard pressed to do that in some areas, not in others. The New York Yankees and the New York Giants are my favorite teams, Yes, I choose them in exclusion to others. They are sports teams, but they are not people. We do not have a personal relationship. My interest in them is a one way street. I do not care if this offends any other team in any other sport.
People are a different matter. Music is a different matter. Art is different. Teaching is both different and the same as having a sports team. You root for your students. You hurt for their defeats and revel in their victories. I may not have known it then but I know it now.
One definition of the word is that it describes someone who enjoys special favor or regard. Another is that it is someone expected to win a specific contest, the favorite. Another is that it is a person treated with “undo favor” by a king or an official. Five definitions down and still all about people. There is one slight mention as an adjective, a special thing held in high regard.
It does not mean that other things cannot be held in high regard, but it has become to mean a form of summit of high regard in a given area: song, film, novel, poem, and painting. Why has our language done this? Is it a form of monotheism? Is that the Genesis of favorite?
Favorites has survived transition to the digital age. One is constantly asked to express Favorites. They are listed and catalogued. A person is sent tempting advertising based on an expression of Favorites.
It seems to have been dressed in new clothing, but does that mean that it has been redefined?
Emily Dickenson wrote: The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
Is that not the natural expression of favorites? It always seemed to me like the happy sperm fulfilled its mission, penetration followed by closure. Selection. I only know that the carriers of those happy sperm have been changed forever. Maybe that is the key to having been a favorite.
The favorite is changed forever. My favorites are rarely human. That says more about me than the nature of favorites, doesn’t it? I really do try to avoid doing that. Maybe it is not as instinctual in me as it is in others. Maybe that is why I feel as I do about favorites.
What does it say about me if the truth is that I have very few? Does a lack of favorites equate to a lack of interest in this world? I do not think so, but you may disagree. That would make you one of my favorites.