I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster lately; I’ve been going through something like an existential crisis, for reasons there is no need to go into, except to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people were experiencing something similar right now, given the state of the world, and this has made me think about how my reading relates to my emotional state. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has no trouble reading depressing books, someone who can pick up bleak, despairing novels and come away from them filled with sorrow over injustice and sadness at suffering, but still able to put things in perspective and to figure out how to go on. I tend to think of sad books as offering bracing insights into the true nature of things, and I think of myself as someone who wants to know the truth about how things really are.
And I still believe these things about myself. But my faith in my ability to read sad books has been put to the test lately, as I’ve matched my emotional roller coast experience with some incredibly sad books in such a way that has sent me reeling. The sad books I’m talking about are Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, both of which I enjoyed (I will write about them in more detail later) and both of which made me despair. It’s funny the way sometimes your reading matches your mood, and sometimes this works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t. I didn’t know what I was getting into with either of these books (I read one because a friend gave it to me for Christmas and the other because it’s been on my shelves for a while and I thought a book about bookshops might be nice), but it turned out they both had something to say about things I’ve been pondering. I appreciate that chance or fate or whatever is bringing along books that make me think and seem to speak to me personally, but sometimes this kind of convergence can be overwhelming, and this is one of those times.
I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about comfort reading; it’s fairly new, actually, for me to consciously turn to a book for comfort. I mean, I found comfort in books and retreated to them when other parts of life were overwhelming, but I didn’t tend to pick up specific books that I thought would make me feel better. I didn’t have the category “comfort reading” in mind when choosing a book. I would reread books now and then, which is the closest thing to comfort reading I had, but I didn’t tend to think of that rereading in comforting terms — it was just something I did when I felt like it.
This has changed lately, largely due to hearing other people talk about comfort reads, and I’m more aware of choosing books for their comforting qualities and more likely to pick up something light when I feel I need to. But still, in spite of knowing better, there’s a part of me that feels that if I pick up a comfort read I’m seeking an escape that’s too easy. It’s one more manifestation of the curse of the puritan work ethic, I suppose, a work ethic I’ve been thoroughly, soundly, completely cursed with.
I have, you will probably be happy to know, recently picked up a comfort read, and many thanks to Musings from the Sofa for lending me a particularly good one — it’s E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia, and so far it’s been a lot of fun. It’s probably exactly what I need. I think I’ll go read a bit of it and see if it makes me feel better.