I had an interesting conversation last night at the park where I took the dogs to run -- I was chatting with a couple who I've seen with their dogs before, but for whatever reason last evening we got to talking more about ourselves. When I explained that I taught at Large Urban, Doug got all excited and explained he'd taken English classes there 25 years ago as part of a journalism degree. He asked me about various faculty (now all retired) and reminisced about reading "The Waste Land". Then came the inevitable question: what's your favorite book? although he gave it a nice twist, which was I think what's your favorite book to teach?
Anyway, since I've been flummoxed by this question in the past (uh, my favorite book in which category -- to read for fun? to write about? to teach to undergrads? in my specialty? or in general? etc) I have now settled on an answer: George Eliot's Middlemarch. Is it a great novel? yes, undoubtedly. Is it a great novel to teach? sometimes, anyway. Is it a good answer to the question? yes -- because people have heard of it, even if they haven't read it (unlike many other Victorian novels). Is it my favorite novel? I don't know if I even know what that question means. But now I have an answer.
But then, to my great surprise, we had a nice chat about why he'd not liked Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner -- he said Eliot was too difficult for him -- I suggested that now that he was an adult he might be ready for MM. Turns out he's a huge Thomas Hardy fan (who would have guessed?) and so we talked about him too.
I'm so used to one of stock responses once I've revealed what I do that I was really caught off guard, pleasantly, by his enthusiasm. (#1: "Oh, I hated English. You must have really good grammar." #2: "Oh, you must like to read. What's your favorite book?" #3 is some variant on "which campus do you work at?" followed by tales of difficulty in getting transfer credits, a cousin who attends a suburban branch campus, or other bureaucratic issues. Since Large Urban is just that, there are probably a million people in the city who have taken classes at one time or another.) He's probably the first stranger in years who actually knew what 19th-century literature was, and remembered reading some. (I've been asked questions about Shakespeare SO many times...)
Do people in other academic fields get this sort of response? "Oh, I hated math. You must be really precise." or "what's your favorite law of physics?"