These Are a Few Of My Favorite Things, On Tiers

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.

97 Comments on “These Are a Few Of My Favorite Things, On Tiers”

  1. I often like to frame such a question as, “what is one book that you think you’d be the only one to recommend”, or, “who’s an author that you like that you find you have a particularly interesting reason for recommending,” or something along those lines.

  2. For me, at least, there’s an additional distinction that is worth making: The distinction between “I want to experience this more than once” and “I am glad I experienced this”.

    For an example: I will re-read basically anything I have ever read by P. G. Wodehouse as the slightest provocation. Bored? Read a Jeeves story. Lonely? Read a Jeeves story. Waiting in a queue for access to a video game? Read a Jeeves story. Cat is adorable? Read a Jeeves story. I love them. But… They have not changed me particularly. They have not hugely altered my experience of what it is to be human.

    On the other hand, L. E. Modesitt’s _Adiamante_ seriously changed aspects of how I think about how I interact with people. I sent my copy to someone I thought could benefit from the exploration of the central theme, and I’ve never felt any particular impulse to buy another. Interesting, but I don’t feel much reason to go read it again.

    So “things I would recommend that you absolutely must read if you have not ever read them” and “things I would recommend as really pleasant and fun experiences to have whenever you have the chance” are totally different kinds of things sometimes.

  3. Matthew E:

    Yeah, but I don’t like those either, because the answer to those depends on to whom I would be recommending. I wouldn’t recommend the same book to someone who likes science fiction and someone who has absolutely no interest in it, to use just one obvious example. Also, it matters whether I know the person to whom I am making the recommendation, etc.

  4. ssteve17: The comment on Bob Dylan’s singing reminds me of this funny story I heard many years ago. This guy was sort of a Grateful Dead fan, and his wife was always asking him to play something else, because “they can’t *sing*”. So one day, he comes home, and she’s listening to the Dead, and he says “wait, I thought you hated the Grateful Dead because they can’t sing”, and she says “Well, yes, but they can’t sing so *well*.”

    I have that response to Bob Dylan. I can’t make out a word he sings, I am not even sure I ought to use the verb “sing” for it, but… It’s catchy.

  5. I realize that this is a serious response to an exasperating question. However, your method of answering it and the thought behind it has me a) rolling laughing with tears in my eyes (thank you for the bright lift to each day!) and b) agreeing completely. I wouldn’t say you answered the question succinctly but you sure did answer it effectively. Leave it to a professional writer to echo some of my thoughts in words. Oh wait, I guess that makes sense…

  6. Yes. Thank you. I hate these sorts of questions too, and haven’t been able to articulate why. This is exactly why, and I will no longer feel like I’m not playing the game right by not having an answer.

  7. My nine-year-old daughter is obsessed with favourites at the moment. She`s always asking me, and I can’t persuade her that not everything works that way.

    On a vaguely related note, I’d like to see a Spanish version of Highlander, so we could have the strapline “There can be only Juan…”

  8. I realize that in your very first post you said you weren’t going to name names, but I would be really interested in who/what lives at that Tier 1 level for you.

  9. I don’t get asked this by people very often, however when filling out multiple level of security questions on websites, they often have a whole slew of these questions. I always have trouble answering them, because I don’t have a favorite X, or the favorite X I had when I answered the question would not be the same as the one when I came back again.

  10. Given that a lot of folks define themselves by what they like, I would imagine that since they like your work, they want to know what makes you like what you like.
    A better question might be, “What have you come across recently that has sparked your interest, and is shareworthy?”
    Although I have to say, you do a good job of sharing such things right here. It’s part of your charm.

  11. I’m right there with you Jon Lundy.
    Ask me what my favorite color is, and tomorrow it will be different.

  12. @Jerome: I realize that in your very first post you said you weren’t going to name names, but I would be really interested in who/what lives at that Tier 1 level for you.

    I realize that in your very first post you said you weren’t going to name names, but I would be really interested in who/what lives at that Tier 6 level for you.

  13. How about the tier “read/saw once, made such an impression that just seeing the cover/hearing the theme song brings everything back, and reading/seeing it again is thus impossible due to memory overload”?

  14. The canonical form of the socially acceptable leading question is, “Read any good books lately?” This neatly side-steps the problem.

  15. My favorite “x” depends on many many factors, including my mood at that particular moment as well as every single thing that’s happened to me in my life leading up to that moment. The tier concept I really like (or call them buckets or whatever the hell). The ordering and exact population of my favorite musicians tier is highly variable with a few core constants, but I may go years without actually listening to anything by Prince, for example, without it diminishing his presence in that tier.

    Some variation on “what is something you return to again and again over the years for inspiration/insight/zone out time/cheap laughs” is a far better question.

  16. Once google buys the NSA we’ll be able to get full analysis of peoples’ preferences and such. What a time to be alive!

  17. I don’t do that question, either. To get around it, on my blog, I have a page of things that were significant to me as I was growing up and are significant to me now. Those things that impacted me don’t change even if I quit liking them. For instance, Piers Anthony was very influential to me during my teen years, but I can’t really read any of that stuff now.

    What I hate more than being asked “what’s your favorite” is seeing other people’s favorites lists with, like, 50 things on them, because I can’t help thinking “evidently, you don’t know the meaning of that word.” Since most people don’t have just one favorite anything, it’s kind of an inane question.

    Well, except I do have just one favorite band. Just don’t ask me to pick a favorite song.

  18. “Why do I have to choose?” I have the same reaction to a lot of binary type personality test questions. What is the context? Am I at work or at home? Have I had a vacation recently or have I worked for 14 days straight?

    Not surprisingly, my personality test results used to vary widely. Why used to? I don’t take them anymore. I’m sure they’re useful for some people, but I’ve never found them so.

  19. Just this morning, my 9 year old son asked me why Jonathan Coulton is not my favorite singer any more. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but them he pointed out that JoCo wasn’t on my current Spotify playlist (which he was scrolling through as I was listening to it). I then showed him all the other playlists, including the ones with an inordinate amount of sad monkey robot songs, and had a conversation with him where I (inelegantly) explained that people have LOTS of favorites and they change constantly. And he still asked, “but yeah, but which one is your *favorite* favorite??” #facepalm

  20. this post explains how john gets work done, while spending so much time on his blog and others. Serious Type A organization skills… I guess you need to be this organized when you are self employed with all the different things you have to juggle. I think we should consider appointing john as ‘government organization czar’.

  21. Whenever I am asked a question of as similar nature I secretly cringe inside. I have no issues telling my preferences or why I like something(like Start Ship Troopers, is both the single best book ever written and the greatest movie ever made, so it is really Tier 0, which is reserved for perfection). I hate the question, because then I feel responsible for another persons enjoyment of said item. Just because I like them, does not mean your life experiences will gel in such a manner that you will like them too. We are all individuals. Read it, watch it, consume it and make up your own mind.

  22. Yeah, it’s annoying when I say “I like this” or “I do this” and people come back later and say “You told me I should try it, and I didn’t like it!” No, I didn’t say you should try it. I expressed a preference for *me*, not for *you*.

  23. I agree entirely. The things that makes me most frustrated, as a hard-core foodie, is the “What’s your favorite dish/meal?” I always stare at them, befuddled, and say “That depends on the time of year, the time of day, the particular season, where I am, and who I’m with, not to mention my mood.”

    I mean, ice-cold gazpacho with olive oil is an amazing lunch in August, especially if it’s been a good tomato year. But it’s a miserable failure in October or February. And pork pie with apples and onions in flaky pastry with cold cider and sage-roasted squash and warm fresh bread is a great dinner with friends in October, but less brilliant for a solitary pity-party breakfast in March. (Pity-party breakfasts should always be chocolate croissants, hot garlic sausage, and fresh orange juice.)

  24. It is obvious that you have never been stuck on a deserted island after being warned that such was going to happen with only time to make a rushed decision on three objects or people.

  25. And I’m guessing the Sound of Music is your all time favorite movie as that is two references in a week.

  26. You know you spend too much time on Whatever when you read Mitchell’s post and immediately think, but John doesn’t drink “adult beverages”.

  27. @Kilroy

    If I was stuck on a desert island and could only have one film/book/cd/etc., I’d starve to death. (No clue who said that originally.)

    I generally, if I feel the need to answer the question, preface it with “Well, today its…” I admit to actually having a top three movies* and a favorite color though.

    *It use to be a top two, then I saw the third one.

  28. Thank you for expressing in simple terms the roots of the dissatisfaction [when asked that question] I’ve felt but been unable to describe. Why would I have to pick/name/choose one? Why should I have to do so?

    (If it’s a matter of weight, can I trade my pinky for a library-load of books stored on silicon? Because if I can’t, I’m not going there, so nyaah!)

  29. This highly parenthetical essay is exactly how I imagine a cat, reincarnated as a human, would express their reaction to the “what is your favorite” question.

    For contrast, a dog reincarnated as a human might start off the answer with, “Having a favorite art or artist is a complex question… Ha! I was just listening an early Cure album today; they’re my favorite! I also ate gelato for the first time; favorite tasty treat ever! And these shoes are my absolute favorites. Hold on, what’s that song on the PA system? Girl From Ipanema? That’s my favorite song! Fun size snicker bar? Don’t mind if I do. It’s my favorite snack! What’s you’re name again? I love you.”

  30. If you were to be stranded on a desert island with 8 pieces of recorded music, which 8 discs would you choose?

    Why do banks think “favorite X” is a good security question?

    Another consideration to the “favorite X” bit is sometimes a work which you appreciate and may consider in the upper tiers may not be a work you wish to appreciate often. As two examples, I found the movie “Se7en” to be a very well done, very powerful, very good movie I never want to watch the last 10 minutes of again; and the album “The Wall” is something I will only listen to when I want to feel depressed (the movie “The Wall” I’ll only watch when I want to feel suicidally depressed). I haven’t listened to or watched “The Wall” for many a year, but I would rank both related works very highly.

  31. Damn it, John. Now I have an earworm about whiskers on kittens and and warm woolen mittens. Could really go for a dog bite or bee sting about now.

  32. “World of Tiers” -c’mon, it had to be said.

    Wanted to loudly second that about Bob Dylan and, for that matter, Tom Waits: “fellas, can you just WRITE, please, and never sing again? Please??? Kaythanxbye.”

  33. I feel like I just need to keep around a print out of my Goodreads reviews for when people ask me ‘What’s your favorite book/author?’ A MUCH BETTER question is ‘What interesting book have you read recently?’ Shortening the time frame allows me to talk about the last 5-10 things I’ve read, and which ones I’ve loved/hated.

  34. We got this question a lot when being interviewed as the chairs of Westercon 66. I have to admit my answer eventually boiled down to “most of it”
    I could then explain that my tastes vary from classic written SF to cheesy kaiju flicks, and all of it made my life brighter and richer. Asking me to choose a favorite is like asking me to pick just one spice to use for cooking.

  35. A little bit of a digression, but: If you have security questions, treat them as “what is another password you’d like to use?” Don’t use true answers, or even meaningful ones. Use random sequences of characters, same as you would for passwords. “Security” questions are in general a sign that you are dealing with cargo-cult security. Be afraid.

  36. “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”

    ah yes the age old struggle between small talk and getting too personal, the cost of doing business is of course being too unsophisticated, naive and annoying to make a connection.

  37. I’ve always been stymied (and a bit annoyed) by those “What is your favorite [insert x] ever?” questions too. I think you did a good idea of summing up why these questions are so exasperating. Now I know I’m not weird (or at least not alone in my weirdness) for having diverse and seemingly self-contradictory tastes in art and entertainment.

  38. John, *thank you* for this. Have bookmarked it for the next time I get asked those questions online. I can manage “favorite composer” (Bach), and I have a few favorite authors (Cordwainer Smith, Zenna Henderson, JRRT, Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Lasswell)… and one favorite always above all others opera (Magic Flute), but after that the answers are multiple.

    Andrew Leon: What I hate more than being asked “what’s your favorite” is seeing other people’s favorites lists with, like, 50 things on them, because I can’t help thinking “evidently, you don’t know the meaning of that word.” Hmmmm. The items on my lists, after the first half dozen, can start to head toward an infinite number very fast. And the older I get, the more are added.

  39. Wrong, Jerome. When desperately holding on with both hands to a bridge in high winds in subzero weather, while terrorists are shooting AK-47s at you, gazpacho is an extremely bad idea.

  40. Your tiers are pretty close to my rating system for book reviews in diamonds: five – one of the best books I’ve read recently; four – a book I enjoyed a lot, will certainly keep and possibly reread; three – a book I enjoyed reading and don’t begrudge the time or money, but won’t keep or reread; two – I read it but wish I hadn’t spent the time or money; one – I couldn’t’ finish it. Note that these are oriented entirely around how I personally reacted to those books; I make no claim that anyone else will find my ratings that useful (although I’d be somewhat surprised if my five-diamond books weren’t at least of some interest to most people who read that kind of book). For instance, the only books by China Mieville and Alistair MacReynolds I’ve tried fell into the one-diamond class, although they’re highly-valued authors by many people whose opinions I respect. May be because I’m 76 years old and the limits on time I have left are getting obvious, even though so far I’m in quite good health. When I get about a hundred pages into a book and have yet to encounter a character I find engaging, I don’t want to waste time seeing if one will eventually turn up.

    (I do review most books I read, except later three-diamond books by authors whose first book I read falls into that category. For a fairly select audience, but over thirty people.)

  41. Ah, but, when it comes to churros, does the whole tier thing still hold up? I mean, there *churros* for gods sake!

  42. @Matthew E.:

    I often like to frame such a question as, “what is one book that you think you’d be the only one to recommend”

    But that’s a rather tricky one in it’s own right. As John pointed out, there’s plenty of things I value beyond reason, but I know others just don’t grok. Anyone who disses Jane Austen in my hearing is going to get cut, but one of my best friends (and a guy with great taste in music) barely reads fiction, so any copy of Pride and Prejudice I push on him is going end up collecting dust under the short leg on his coffee table. Just as he’s probably never going to transmit his love of old school hip-hop to me.

    But there’s also the thing about having a very intense emotional relationship to my personal first tier — nobody experiences art without a context. Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ is (IMO) a masterpiece of 20th century classical music – and one of the greatest pieces of writing for the soprano voice ever – but it’s also the CD I had on endless repeat the week after my foster mother and maternal grandmother died on the same day. Don’t expect that to mean jack to anyone else.

  43. Jeez, you guys who think Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are better when covered: Ain’t nobody does Brecht/Weill better than Lotte Lenya. Gritty has its place.

  44. I’m kind of a fan of asking what someone’s favorite XYZ is right now. Like, what’s your favorite song right now? I can always answer that. It’s not my favorite of all time, but right now? I always have a Current Favorite Thing. It changes all the time, because I’m completely fickle, but I’m always interested in discussing my Current Favorite Whatever.

    Right now? Current favorite movie is Pitch Perfect, current favorite book is The Hydrogen Sonata, current favorite song is Bad Girls by MIA. These are the things I love rightnowthisminute and it might change in 60 seconds. That’s generally an interesting conversation.

  45. DavidNOE stole some of my thunder, as I was going to mention the “star” system that a lot of restaurant reviewers use. I don’t, but that doesn’t stop people who find out I write about restaurants asking me my favorite. I used to give the answer some thought every time I was asked, but for the last few years I just name the first good restaurant that pops into my head; sometimes I keep naming restaurants until I’m asked to stop.

    I will admit to asking a similar question of a lot of people I meet as an icebreaker, “where/what have you eaten lately that you enjoyed?”

  46. I do have a favorite movie * but everything else changes according to mood, weather, illness, whim, and everything else that varies since I am a human. Heck, sometimes I can’t even remember my favorites till someone mentions it.

    So I have tiers much like John’s, but mine are sloppier, not as well-organized, and more cluttered. Because we’re different humans.

    *Since I know you’re all wondering, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seen it somewhere around 100 times. 80+ in the theater.

  47. I recently had a coworker (who had just started taking the bus to work and knew that I’ve been a bus rider for years) ask me “who my favorite bus author” was… I told him I didn’t really understand the question. “Well, who do you read most on the bus? What type of books?”. Um, ALL of them… to give him an example I told him right now it was David McCullough because I’m reading 1776, but that I’d been on a Jane Austen kick for a bit before that and had read Cutting For Stone before THAT. So then, sorry, but I can’t help you

  48. As you probably know, Desert Island Discs is actually a massively famous radio programme here in the UK where you have to do exactly this, choose eight records, one luxury and one book, in addition to the religious text of your choice to take to your desert island. It’s utterly inane and completely fascinating. Plus, if you have sufficient career longevity, they ask you back. David Attenborough has been on five times I think, and each time with different choices. And many of the castaways (that’s what Kirsty calls them, ‘my castaway this week is…’, and I think she has the best voice of all the presenters, although diehard Roy Plumley fans will probably hunt me down) cheerfully admit that the format is utterly bogus, for pretty much the reasons you state, and so they just go for what they like at the moment or whatever pops into their heads when they have to compile the list – well in advance of their actual appearance I should add. Anyway, it’s a fascinating snapshot of a person in a very thin slice of life and I think that’s why people ask the question. Of course, I find it incredibly irritating myself, especially since I’m concerned exactly what my choice might reveal about me, rather than attempting to address the question straightforwardly. Maybe I should try that.

  49. I don’t remember exactly when, but I did, at one point, pick a favorite book, movie, and band (“The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, and “The Pogues”, if anyone cares), just so I’d have some response to “What is your favorite…” type questions. I have no problem with these choices being my favorites, even if they aren’t, because they are firmly Tier 1 (to use John’s Taxonomy). Of course, no one has ever asked, but I’m ready if anyone does!

  50. One reason I find these kinds of questions problematic is that many works that have moved me greatly are works that are undoubtedly not in the top tier of artistic accomplishment. John Huston’s film of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” is a well-executed but minor film, and yet if I think of the films that have stuck with me over a very long time it immediately comes to mind.

  51. I forget who said this, but here’s a paraphrase:

    Q: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one book with you, which would you choose?
    A: The Idiot’s Guide to Boat Building.

    I used to think this was just humorous sarcasm, but this post makes me think this person actually has a point: it would of course matter a great deal what the circumstances around your forced monolibrancy was.

  52. What’s your favorite vitamin?

    If you could only have one internal organ, which one would you keep?

    Would you rather have air, water, or food?

    Just giving some examples of other stupid questions.

  53. So it looks to me like we can map your tiers as stars = 6 – tier, giving reviews from 0-5 stars. Is that how your movie reviews worked?

    I’ve never heard Beethoven, Bach or Mozart play, for all I know, they too are artists better covered by others.

    There is certainly a category of art that I’m glad I saw and don’t care to see again. I’d rather set myself on fire than watch District 9 again. We have a DVD of Schindler’s List still in the wrapper. That might be the where it stays forever.

    There is also art I love to consume, but don’t consider good.

  54. I agree with the tiers problem.

    The way I handle it is to say, “Here’s what I’m into right now.”

    It solves multiple problems. It allows you to forgo the realm of “OMG! ALL TIME BEST!” and instead talk about what is interesting and influencing you at the moment. Which, I’m sure we all go through these phases where we’re on some sort of kick for no apparent reason.

    It also doesn’t shut down conversation. As you point out, that type of question is usually just a harmless ice-breaker. “Right now I’m into Kung Fu, Mecha, and Russel Brand. Now, if only we could combine these things!” It’s a non-committal answer, that actual does address the intent of the original question, opening the door for further conversation.

    And the conversation inevitably trickles backward into influences. Which, in a way, is answering the “your favorite” question without having to proclaim one above the other. “Russel Brand would have been ideal as Rico in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers! Could you imagine?! Rico improperly using big words through a barely understandable English accent, blowing the crap out of everyone. Man, if only!”

    I mean, it’s silly. But I think simply looking at the problem as a way to open up conversation rather than to shut it down is more advantageous.

  55. “But I think simply looking at the problem as a way to open up conversation rather than to shut it down is more advantageous.”

    Thanks, J.E. Mac. That puts it in perspective. I read Mr Scalzi’s post and worked myself into something of a low-grade huff (okay, tizzy) about how much I hate that favorites question. But you’re right. It really is about starting a conversation, getting to know someone else and really connecting with them as a human being.

    I need to lighten up.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  56. It would make my ears happy if Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were songwriters whose singing was never heard in public..

    I do ask people what their favorite books are (yes, really), sometimes with qualifiers and sometimes not. Sometimes the answers arrive in a rush, sometimes there’s some eye rolling, sometimes there’s an answer that is immediately taken back and replaced. However it goes, it’s generally the start to an interesting conversation, which would be my aim when asking personal questions.

    If I’m asked for a favorite, I say what book I last wanted to give to strangers and friends alike, hoping others would love it too.

  57. I can understand your irritation with such questions. I find them almost pointless. It’s like asking someone to describe a novel in one sentence.

    First, unless you know me very well, you won’t really get why something moves me or not. That comes with years of friendship, life experiences.

    Second, the world is full of stuff I enjoy, and it’s across the spectrum in terms of people’s interests.

    A better question would be what do you like to see in a story? What do you find irritating?

  58. Yeah, me too.

    What drives me crazy is when web sites ask you to pick from a set of security questions and 95% of them are “Favorites” questions. If I truly have to pick something like that, I immediately have to go write down my answer somewhere because there’s no chance I’m going to remember it next time I hit the question. I have trouble believing there are people who favorites are so writ in stone that those security questions work for them.

  59. Leonard Cohen … The Young Ones quote sums it up “no-one listens to me, I might as well be a Leonard Cohen record”. Oooh, ooohh, my favourite quote!

    I quite enjoy the “what’s your favourite” question because I get to go on about whatever I like. It’s kind of like dealing with a hostile interviewer. Don’t answer the question, talk about something I want to talk about. My favourite death metal band? I was once in a comedy show that featured a skit about an acoustic death metal band…

  60. Okay John, I totally understand your irritation at this vague question. I’m curious, however, if you would feel differently about a more specific question of the same type. For example, instead of “What;s your favorite band?”, how might you react to “It’s early summer. You’re driving with the windows down and enjoying the fresh scent of the world around you. Your loved ones are in the car with you, and you have nowhere in particular to be. What song do you want hear at that moment?”

    Is that question (or one like it) more interesting for you to think about, or is it just more specifically annoying?

  61. Alien space whales are threatening to destroy the planet unless you tell them what your favorite book is! You HAVE to choose!

  62. I agree with Anne Gray that using “favorite x” as a security question is particularly annoying as you then have to remember which random “favorite” you picked (or use a bogus and easily-guessed answer like “favebook”).

    My favorite type of security question is the one where they let you pick THE QUESTION AND THE ANSWER. E.g. “Who spilled an entire pound bag of M&Ms on the floor while trying to open them?” No one outside my immediate family knows that; no one inside the immediate family will ever forget it; and should anyone capture the password it would be useless in other contexts (unlike, say, ‘mother’s maiden name’).

  63. I can’t answer for John, obviously, but the kinds of questions Matthew E and Dylan proposed are the kinds of questions I wouldn’t find annoying if they came from someone I know really well as we were spending the afternoon or evening shooting the breeze. If someone I don’t really know asked me any of those questions at a party or public gathering, my answer would be along the lines of “Oh, hey, my friend X just came in, gotta go say hi. Nice talking to you.” I don’t see those as good conversation starters, They still put the questionee too much on the spot. The kindest interpretation would be someone trying too hard in an attempt not to ask a cliched question. If you want to start a conversation, go for something simpler. Then, if the conversation takes off and you and the person you’re talking to seem to be simpatico, you might eventually be able to ask questions like those.

    “What music have you been listening to lately?” or “What books are you reading?” Stuff like that is simple to ask, much easier to answer, and far less likely to be annoying.

  64. This is great! I can never pick just ONE favorite of anything. I can pick my CURRENT favorite, maybe, but I have a lot of favorites of everything, for many of the same reasons you laid out. My brain is more likely to curl up in the fetal position when you ask me to pick just one of anything. :) That could be my personal lack of decisiveness, but I also hold that I just can’t choose between things that like equally.

  65. @Lurkertype: Yes! Raiders of the Lost Ark. I like many, many movies but I guess I could say that is my favorite.
    When it comes to music or books, it is pretty much impossible to answer, although my favorite band is the Grateful Dead. So much of it depends on how I fell, what I saw/read/heard lately, etc. So John, the tier thing works for me.

  66. Use the preview button Phil. Not how I fell (although that is a long story), but how I feel. Thanks.

  67. “My favourite death metal band? I was once in a comedy show that featured a skit about an acoustic death metal band…”

    You might want to check out a group called “The Deadly Gentlemen.” They are kind of this. Metallica isn’t done right until it’s done on a banjo.

    I consider bluegrass festivals to be Tier 1 art events, because you get to see stuff like that.

    And! Before the switch to this new blogging software, some kind soul was generous enough to show me how to quote in a cool and reliable manner. I could use some help on that front again. :)

  68. I have many favorites, and now I have to watch the entire Highlander movie/tv show/fanfic everything.
    This is all your fault. It is not even a Tier 1 event, but you just shoved it to the top of my mind.
    For shame.

  69. I loathe the favorite/desert island question, and either categorically refuse to answer, or give my interlocutor a bewildered look and reply, “I don’t understand the question.”


    Also, obnoxious typo here:

    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.


    I loathe the favorite/desert island question

    If the inquisitor asks me which X I’d take to a desert island, I ask them why they would expect me to take X with me to eat dessert on an island. If the inquisitor asks me my favorite dessert, I tell them I’m fond of the Mojave…unless they’re baking, in which case my stomach answers in my stead :P

  71. Desert Islands aren’t called that because they’re deserts, but because they’re deserted—which of course is why deserts are called that too. A desert island can be covered with vegetation and have plentiful water without compromising the name, though why such a place wouldn’t have become a private resort by now would be hard to understand.

    Before the switch to this new blogging software, some kind soul was generous enough to show me how to quote in a cool and reliable manner. I could use some help on that front again.

    Jerome, enclose the intended quote in <blockquote> and </blockquote>. For example, I produced the above by typing “<blockquote>Before the switch to this new blogging software, some kind soul was generous enough to show me how to quote in a cool and reliable manner. I could use some help on that front again.</blockquote>”

  72. I’ve always held that people who have an easy answer to ‘favorite book’ probably don’t read a whole lot of them. I’m sure there are exceptions, but all the readers I know respond with some variation of “I can’t pick just one.”

    I agree that “Read anything good lately?” is a much better way to phrase it.

  73. I have always had a problem with the “favourite” questions too. I can safely point to my favourite television show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and probably my favourite singer (Streisand) and my favourite Dr. Seuss book (Green Eggs and Ham), but after that, it gets complicated. I like the Tier system for favourites that prove to have longevity, and the Current Favourite system for the things that are the latest, greatest thing you are into. But even then, I don’t think I could ever pick just one book or just one song.

  74. Anytime I make any claim to something being my “favorite” of anything, I always add the disclaimer that “Jessi’s Favorite things are subject to change at any time without prior notice or explanation. No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.”

    I have a real passion for being enthusiastic about things.

  75. A desert island can be covered with vegetation and have plentiful water without compromising the name, though why such a place wouldn’t have become a private resort by now would be hard to understand.

    It’s owned by a Bond villain. It only appears to be deserted, but you won’t see anyone until you gain access to the volcano.

  76. i am also annoyed by the question about favourites, and don’t really view the offered alternatives as much better — yes, they’re at least more cognizant that “favourite” is not very thoughtful, but they’re also too intrusive for my taste, coming from a complete stranger. just ask “have you read anything interesting lately?” and we’re good. i realize the “favourite” question is used as a conversation starter, but i am a curmudgeon, and not particularly interested in conversing with somebody who asks thoughtless questions as conversation starters.

    i find it interesting that you struggle with both the term “tiers” and “regenerate” — yeah, same here. tiers doesn’t really work because it is all very fractal and convoluted, depends on my state of mind, time in my life, etc, and i am not organized enough to sort out all my likes, if it can even be done. i can tier-ize my dislikes much more easily, and am (perplexingly?) more interested in doing that. and “regenerate” doesn’t work because most of the art that has affected me most has not regenerated me at all; it has hit me like a ton of bricks and has opened my eyes, but it’s usually been exhausting. incredibly worthwhile, yes, but still, exhausting. much like really great conversations. very introvert of me, i guess.

    the 3 books i’d want to take to a desert island: “how to survive on a desert island”, “how to build a floating conveyance with your bare hands”, and an empty one so i can write in it.

  77. Don’t forget your mirrored Speedos!

    ?!? Google… Google… Google… Ah so it turns out that Speedo makes swim goggles.

  78. I suspect he’s referring to the swim trunks, to deflect the laser beam that’s supposed to split you in half lengthwise….

  79. Even if the desert island is covered with plentiful vegetation and has fresh water, I’m not much of an outdoorswoman. My book list would consist of various survival and first aid manuals.

    Even if I’m not allowed to fight the hypothetical, I don’t think an thoughtful answer to that would produce my true favorites, or at least not all of them. Given the amount of free time I’d have, there’d be a strong incentive to lean toward longer or more complicated works, even when shorter ones may be loved more. If I were picking desert island Joss Whedon shows, Buffy seems like a better option than Firefly, simply because there’s a lot more of Buffy. On the book front, a foreign language textbook might be a good choice to replace a novel.

    The tier idea doesn’t perfectly fit how I evaluate things, since I tend to pick media by my mood and often think of things in terms of books I like when I’m feeling sad, or happy, or when I’m traveling, or when I want pure escapism in addition to the rough rankings based on preference. However, tiers do make a lot more sense than simply picking one favorite, or even one favorite per mood or genre.

  80. Mike: Ah, I see. I should include “…for values of ‘private resort’ that include ‘lair of supervillain’.”

  81. @Xopher, I see no difficulty in this terminology.

    @Phil, yes! I saw it again in IMAX last year and it is still the best. Practical effects just hold up better.

  82. I suspect he’s referring to the swim trunks, to deflect the laser beam that’s supposed to split you in half lengthwise….

    Yes swimwear is what first came to mind when I saw “mirrored Speedos” but it seems like they would be a defense against lasers so meager as to make Boris Vallejo chain mail bikinis seem like sound engineering.

    It does turn out that Speedo offers mirrored swim goggles, so I thought perhaps the idea was that you could swim up to the volcano and the bad guys would let you in because they can’t see through your Clark Kent-like disguise. Which actually makes no more sense that the tiny swim trunks.

    Well it does resolve the conflict between an apparently deserted island and the expectation that there aren’t any deserted islands anymore. It does make one wonder if there are actually any evil schemes that pay as well as converting one’s lair into a resort.

  83. In the mid-1990s, the application for undergraduate admission to Princeton included “What is your favorite book?” and “What is your favorite movie?” I never did understand why, but I agonized over that way more than any of the other admission application questions from them or any other school.

    A variant on the “What’s your favorite” that can be interesting is the “Your house is on fire, all your loved ones (including pets) are safe, and you have just enough time to grab an armful of books on your way out” version. I like it, but only with people I already know at least somewhat well, since it’s going beyond taste and preferences into the more personal territory of emotional attachments.

    For small talk, I concur with the “What are you reading/what have you read lately?” It puts people on the spot less, and it opens up more conversational possibilities. If I’ve read it, I can ask what they thought of particular bits of it, and if I haven’t, I can ask whether they’d recommend it for someone who’s into Y type of books, or how similar it is to the author’s other works, etc. There aren’t as many places to go with an answer to a “what’s your favorite” question.

  84. Ohio: local sci fi writer, John Scalzi, is under arrest and facing charges of assault and battery after an altercation between him and a person in line in front of him at the supermarket. The victim currently wishes to remain anonymous but states the violence started when he turned around and asked Mr Scalzi how his day was going. The victim states Scalzi went into a rage attacked him, while screaming something not entirely choherent, but involving. Calling the question naive and something somehing tears. Scalzi is currently being held without bail.

  85. Your tier system for artists provides a nice setup for something I’ve thought about but not gotten around to making a formal diagram of. It does lack one category I’ve noticed, which I’d identify as Tier 3A or 4A – Not very good at what they do; some of their work also speaks to me. The category is what many people would describe as guilty pleasures, or less formally, “Yeah, XXXX’s work is mass market dreck, but songs A, B, and C of hers hit me at just the right time in just the right way that they are now important to me.

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