I get asked a lot what about what my favorite book/movie/album/creatively generated object might be (or my favorite author/filmmaker/musician/creative type), and I find as I go along in life I get progressively more annoyed with the question. This is usually not the fault of the person asking the question, who is generally trying to make innocuous conversation and is doing so by opening up a socially-approved line of trivial conversation.
It is, however, the fault of the question itself, which is unsophisticated, naive and annoying. Like most people over the age of twelve, who both had time to expand their creative palates and who recognize that life is not always a zero-sum Highlander-like experience, in which There Can Be Only One, I don’t have a single favorite book, or movie, or album, etc, or a favorite author or filmmaker or musician, or so on. I like a lot of different things (and artists) almost equally for reasons that are often not equivalent or comparable.
What I have instead — and what I suspect most people have — are personal tiers: general landings of favor in which the works/creators are held at a mostly equivalent level of esteem. For works of creativity, these tiers basically look like this:
First tier: The works of art that, for lack of a better term, regenerate me: I take them in and they make me feel like a better person for having gone through them.
Second tier: Works that I enjoy a lot and happily reconsume when the mood strikes me.
Third tier: Good once, could enjoy again, but probably won’t go out of my way to do so.
Fourth tier: Once was enough for all time.
Fifth tier: Mildly annoyed that I spent my time with it.
Sixth tier: Deeply annoyed some of the precious few moments in which I exist as a conscious being in this universe have been wasted on this crap.
For the artists themselves, it looks like this:
First tier: I consider these folks as my personal artistic pantheon.
Second tier: These folks are very reliable purveyors of entertainment that works for me for one or more reasons.
Third tier: Good at what they do; some of their work also speaks to me.
Fourth tier: Good at what they do, but what they do isn’t my thing.
Fifth tier: Not very good at what they do, but they make other people happy, so, meh.
Sixth tier: Abstractly okay with the concept that these people are allowed to express themselves in a manner that looks like creativity if you don’t think about it too hard, but honestly, what the hell.
Even here, “tier” does not capture the complexity of the thinking about these things, since the tiers themselves have plateaus, slopes and fractal surface features, reflecting that I like different things for different reasons. The objects and people in the tiers are likewise often in motion, moving up and down the tiers as my personal tastes, interests and experience change (or whether, for example, I’ve listened to/read/watched that particular thing too many times recently). Likewise, first tier artists can create lower tier output; lower tier artists have created works I unreservedly place on my top tier of creative experiences. And so on.
The point is that on the first tier of things, both with artists and with output, it because difficult (or difficult for me, anyway) to accurately quantify how or whether one is better than other. My top tier of movies, for example, contains both Tootsie and Stop Making Sense. One is a comedy and one is a concert film. One has great acting performances and one has great musical performances. One makes me laugh, and the other makes me dance. Likewise, among writers, I enjoy ee cummings and H.L. Mencken for reasons that have almost nothing to do with each other. If you come in and say to me “Yeah, but if you had to choose one over the other, which would you choose?” I would look at you like you were dense.
(The “yeah, but if you had to choose” questions drive me up a wall, too. Because I immediately get sidetracked into the why. Why do I have to choose? What circumstances of fate have led me only to be able to pick one book/movie/album, etc? I want to know why civilization has collapsed to the point (or whatever other circumstances occur) where I only get one thing. Because that seems kinda crucial to me. Really, in a situation like that, focusing only on that one book/movie/album seems the ultimate in wasting brain cycles on inappropriate trivia. This is especially the case now that we live in a world where I can carry ten thousand songs, an equal number of books and a couple of hundred movies with me at all times.)
(Also note that my favorite works/creators are not necessarily the best works/creators by any sort of critical and/or popular consensus. Citizen Kane is generally considered one of the greatest films of all time, and I do not disagree with that assessment one bit. It is possibly the Best Film Ever. But I don’t often feel like going out of my way to see it; it’s not on my personal First Tier. Likewise, Bob Dylan is both indisputably one of the most important musical figures in the last 60 years and on my fourth tier of artists; I like nearly all his stuff better when it’s covered by someone else. Personal taste is a weird and wonky thing.)
All of this is a very long way of saying that asking me what my favorite thing is, is not likely to get you the answer you want, unless the answer you want is a sour, exasperated look and a long, drawn out sigh (and if that is the answer you want, you’re a bad person and I don’t like you). On the other hand, if you ask me what some of my top tier books/music/movies are, then you might get a more interesting answer, especially interesting because then you get to try to figure out what it means that someone would like both Tootsie and Stop Making Sense almost equally as much. You’re well on your way to a psychological profile right there.