British classics of love and adventure, a Southern-girlhood reminiscence, and a collection of lashingly funny essays light up the novelist's imagination.
People are not always as honest as they could be when compiling lists of their favorite books. They may not set out to fib; they may believe that they are digging deep into their memory banks to find their authentic reading passions. But somewhere along the line, an insidious snobbery, or vanity, or both, compels them to fancy up their choices a bit. Instead of acknowledging the important role that Bridget Jones has played in their lives, they end up talking about what Dombey and Son means to them. Rather than confess to their intense and ongoing love affair with Jack London, they extoll the virtues of Herman Melville.

I am not immune to this regrettable, self-regarding tendency. My first impulse when I set about composing my own favorites list was to think of all the greatest books I had read—worthy books, tony books, books whose unimpeachable gravitas would reflect well on my own cleverness and taste. Eventually, however, I saw the pretentiousness of my ways and had another go. (Yes, yes—Lord Jim is a cracker of a novel. But is it a novel I have reread a hundred times? Is it the sort of old faithful that I throw into my suitcase at the last minute, lest the other new books that I am taking on vacation turn out to be duds? Do I not only respect it but truly, deeply love it? Um, no.) My revised list turns out to be rather less high-toned than the original, but it is what strict truthfulness dictates.

Not coincidentally, all the books I have ended up choosing are ones that I first read as a child or as a teenager. There's something about the reading you do when you're young, when the clay is still wet, that allows particularly romantic relationships to be forged with books. You may become a better, more perceptive reader as you grow up. Your critical faculties may get sharper, and the range of experience that you bring to your reading necessarily grows broader. But I'm not sure you ever read more passionately or intensely than you do in your youth. Nowadays when I reread my favorite books, it is partly to learn what I can from their style, partly to remind myself why it is I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and perhaps most of all to indulge my nostalgia for the (relatively) innocent girl I was when I first encountered them.

Born in Britain, Zoë Heller now lives in New York. The movie based on her novel Notes on a Scandal will be released later this month.

What's on Zoë Heller's Bookshelf? Read more!


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