I’m so tired lately.
A lot of people have been saying they’re tired. It’s hard to get up every day and read about what horrible new thing has made “normal” move another step towards “intolerable”. We’re all frogs in the pot at the moment, aren’t we? (Cue Bruce Cockburn: The Trouble With Normal Is It Always Gets Worse) (an excellent song, in case you’re unfamiliar.)
Since the unfortunate event in the US last November, I’ve found my reading has been seriously thrown off. Normally I’m happy to read weird things, dystopias, things with sad endings, things that put characters in difficult situations, things that twist my brain in strange new ways, just for fun. Right now: nope.
I keep putting down books whenever they hit an uncomfortable bit or a challenging bit or an unpleasant moment. I had to create a whole new shelf on Goodreads for “on pause”.
For example, I’ve been struggling exceedingly slowly through 33 Jours, someone’s story of fleeing the Nazis as they entered France in WWII, and I have to keep putting it down not because the French is difficult — it’s delightfully clear and elegant — but because I just can’t deal with it. I had to leave off Perdido Street Station at a mere 4% read because every page oozed or squelched or was in some way deeply squalid and/or sordid. I keep thinking I should re-read The Handmaid’s Tale since my daughter has it as assigned reading this year (her English teacher deliberately brought it back into the curriculum), but — no. Rome fell. The Dark Ages were a thing, and a thing that’s a little too close for comfort at the moment.
I fully acknowledge it’s pathetic. I have no doubt they are excellent books. But not now.
Sales of romances are up, apparently. I’m not the only one who just can’t even. Tina Fey’s sheetcake sketch was as tone-deaf as the critics noted, but still — there was a kernel of something there, wasn’t there. If sales of Sauvignon Blanc aren’t also up I’ll… I’ll finish this bottle, so I shall.
Of course we’re tired. You can’t do all the invisible emotional labour of keeping yourself, your relationship, your work, your family all going in an uncertain world AND keep the US and North Korea from nuking each other, every single day, among news of disastrous new laws and weather-related disasters and mass shootings and other bits of startling horror. It’s too freaking much to ask; one can only hold so many airplanes in the air with the power of one’s mind and firmly clenched stomach muscles.
And so the ability to read heavy — in the figurative, not literal sense — books is temporarily misplaced, it seems.
To be clear: I’m talking about recreational reading here. The kind of essential reading that helps you tackle privilege and patriarchy and colonialism and other -isms is difficult and important and should not and cannot be tossed aside to handle later at one’s convenience, but that is in the whole other category of Must-Do, not the category of Recreational. Those things I continue to read and take seriously as part of personal development because it seems to me that getting more people on board with those ideas will move us forward societally, assuming we manage to avoid The Dark Ages, The Sequel.
So let us praise Soothing Books for recreational purposes, lest we all languish in despair and ennui. You know: books in which the characters make their way through a world that is reasonably orderly and reasonably far from slipping into The Dark Ages, The Sequel. Or is at least distractingly engrossing and/or has some hot sex in it or something.
Let me make a few recommendations.
First: re-reading, generally. I am dealing poorly with the unknown. Perhaps you are too. Re-reading solves that neatly.
Second: chatty cookbooks, the kind that mostly talk about cooking, food, ingredients, and (preferably) foreign locales in a way that allows one to both fantasize about living [wherever] but also cook [whatever] right now at home. Example: David Lebovitz’ My Paris Kitchen. You can pretend you’re in Paris but enjoy your non-microscopic non-Paris kitchen and cook his recipes today if you want. I’m going to start with the scalloped potatoes with blue cheese and roasted garlic, which sounds soothing in and of itself. Or there’s Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First if you prefer ideas to recipes.
Third: romances, as mentioned above. They may have uncomfortable moments but they’re usually short and trivial, and the books virtually never end badly (I see people reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance [not a romance!] on the subway sometimes and I want to tap them on the shoulder and let them know it ends badly — VERY BADLY INDEED yes yes I am a bit scarred ok). Recommendations: anything, really, but my friend Josie Kerr’s books would be a pleasant place to start if you want romances involving people over thirty years old and excellent depictions of consent. Going back to authors like Georgette Heyer is another solid idea. If you don’t mind some dragons and things, Katie MacAlister.
Fourth: period pieces. Some online friends recommended the Miss Read books to me and they are pretty much the Platonic ideal of Soothing (assuming one can overlook the British class system, which can be, I know, a substantial ask). Georgette Heyer again. I’m also extremely partial to Patrick O’Brian’s 20-book Aubrey/Maturin series, ideally as audiobooks. They are just the thing. Jane Austen, too. (Avoid Dickens.)
Fifth: Alternative realities, whether sci-fi or fantasy or whatever. The trick here is to avoid the unpleasant/dystopic ones. Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy suits the bill here, and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books within the Discworld series. A lot of reality just now reflects Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to me — metanationals, political bickering, climate change disasters – so I haven’t re-read those, but those with stronger dispositions than mine might enjoy the parallels and the eventually optimistic future view. Similarly, Ender’s Game (but for the love of all that’s holy don’t read the sequels). Harry Potter, of course.
Sixth: Mysteries might work for some people, for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, or Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, or if you can tolerate some alternative Hells and some squelchiness, Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series. With mysteries you know there will be unpleasantness but it will be predictable and resolved by the end of the book, for the most part.
Seventh: Books from cultures remote from your own might work, although it’s hard to screen those in advance for potential sudden unpleasantness. Americanah is one suggestion. Books from India and South/Central America are riskier, I find.
Things I have found that, for me, are unhelpful:
- Anything reality based, viz., 33 Jours
- Anything that focuses on capitalism (Michael Lewis) or the environment
- Nonfiction, except maybe memoirs of rock stars or actors or whatnot
- Anything Russian, pretty much (sorry)
- Anything that’s intended to be purely humorous (I’m not in the right mood and it all strikes me as facile)
There’s nothing wrong with purely escapist recreational reading if it’s what keeps us all from running stark mad. I think we’ll just have to go with that for a while. The heavy books will be there waiting when we’re ready to pick them up again.