Sunday, March 26, 2017

On Having A Favorite

To enroll in a frequent-flyer program online, I had to answer half a dozen security questions, including "What is your favorite kind of vacation?" and "What is your favorite cold-weather activity?"

Who has ready answers to these kinds of questions?

"I like red the best!" says the toddler, as if his outfit didn't already make that clear. For grownups as well, having a favorite is for people who are at the toddler stage in their appreciation of something. I have a favorite bourbon, and that should tell you that I don't know much about bourbon. A good way to know that somebody isn't much of a reader is if they have a favorite book.

Now it is true that when I eat in a familiar restaurant, I almost always order the same thing. Always the pork curry at the Thai place in my neighborhood, always the chicken tikka at the Indian place. There's more to Indian food than chicken tikka, of course, but that's why God created other Indian restaurants. And if I didn't want a Shackburger and a strawberry shake, then I wouldn't be at Shake Shack, now would I?

This is not to say that Shake Shack hamburgers are the only hamburgers I like. I also like an occasional double quarter-pounder, or a "Mexican style" hamburger with Jack cheese, salsa, and avocado. Can't go wrong with a barbecue burger either—that bacon and zippy sauce!

Also, crumbled blue cheese is excellent on a thick hamburger.

Yet there are people out there who say things like, "My favorite hamburger is In-n-Out." Hearing this always makes me sad, not because I object to In-n-Out burgers in themselves, but because having a favorite hamburger just seems like a sad way to live.

To have a favorite X is to care too little about X's to arrange your life in such a way as to be surrounded only by wonderful X's. As few ties as I own, I can't say I have a favorite one. I like them all, or else why would I have them? Do you really want to put on a tie and think, "Eh, not my favorite"?

On the other hand, there are costs to not having a favorite. I can spend a long time in the morning choosing a tie to wear. A trip to the bookstore can take me hours and lead to no firm decisions; likewise for a trip to my Netflix queue. If nothing else, having favorites is efficient: a fact well known to parents of toddlers.

In portraiture, I've enjoyed a number of pictures by Sargent, Titian, Velázquez, and Cassatt. But choosing my favorite portraitist among these painters would require looking away from their ravishing pictures and studying my own reactions instead. I think that between me and the painting, the painting is more interesting. Or: if I reflect that I've read Kingdom of Shadows three times in the past five years, then what I wonder isn't "Why do I like this book so much?" It's instead, "What are the qualities of this book that make it so seductive and successful?"

I am not my favorite subject. When a person says "X is my favorite," the grammatical subject of his sentence may be X, but his real subject is himself. To know my favorite this-or-that would require a level of interest in myself that I don't usually have. My family and friends are interested in me; I accept it gratefully. It's enough.


Melissa Hosten said...
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Melissa Hosten said...

Hmmmm...I can see your point, yet as I think about books I recall that book I'd read over and over in between the new books I'm loving to read in the moment. Wouldn't that book that I love enough to read and reread be a favorite? Yet it doesn't keep me from exploring new and wonderful books that I hope will be so wonderful that I'll crave them and reread them aso well. Perhaps having a favorite isn't the sad thing, but excluding opportunity to select one thing exclusively is sad. Excluding all other songs for the one favorite song might be truly sad. Listening earnestly to music to discover those songs you'll replay in between the new songs is not sad at all, but wonderful.

Jason Zimba said...

Interesting! Thanks for this. It opens up some fruitful questions and helpful distinctions that I missed. I may return and try to build out the post into a more complete piece.

Jason Zimba said...

As a quick edit, I changed "favorites" to "a favorite" because that distinction is important here. If I rework this, I'll republish in a new post.

Jason Zimba said...

Added two more paragraphs to the post