Wednesday, September 22, 2010
I think almost anyone who reads has books he or she returns to, whether to be reminded of the pleasure the first reading gave, or to see what new insight can be gained, or to try to learn how and why the book is so great. (As a writer, I use that third reason more than most, I suspect.)
I wish I could say I read and re-read Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Plato, or even Bill Buckley. While I have read all of them, I don’t go running back to them again and again -- except “A Christmas Carol” of course. The author I most often return to is Donald E. Westlake. He wrote hilarious crime capers. He died not long ago, while on vacation after finishing his latest (what a lovely way to go!) -- his last -- Dortmunder novel. I find them extraordinarily well-written of course.
I think most people who have a knack they indulge for writing will find, after a while, that no matter what great reviews a certain book has received, they, themselves, find it unreadable. And they may find themselves admiring an author who remains adamantly obscure. This is for the same reason: the authors’ skill, or lack of it, as wordsmiths. Westlake was a brilliant wordsmith, and was not at all obscure. His inventive stories were wonderful; he had a prodigious ability to lead his protagonists into wildly improbable situations, step by logical, inexorable, inevitable step. I rarely laugh out loud when reading alone, but I was rolling on the floor reading Westlake. I liked him so much I bought him in hardcover. My favorite of his Dortmunder series was Drowned Hopes.
Another favorite author is Terry Pratchett. When I heard he was diagnosed with Alzheimers, I immediately began a methodical reading of all his works that I own, in the order published. That took quite a while, he has a long list of titles. He, too, writes comic capers, but set in a fantasy world. It’s a flat world, resting on the backs of four staggeringly immense elephants, who in turn are standing on the shell of an even more immense turtle who is traveling through space to a destination no one knows, possibly not even the turtle. Magic works on this world, but not always as planned. I met Mr. Pratchett when he came to Mini Con, a science fiction convention held every year in Minneapolis. He was bemused when I asked if I could rub the top of his head, but when I explained that I was also a published author hoping thereby to improve both my plots and my vocabulary, he agreed to let me do it. He is a fine, kind gentleman, and a great wit. (The rubbing didn’t work, sigh.)
Back when I was single and often depressed, I used to read and re-read Elizabeth Gouge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The ending was over the top, but the rest of the book was hugely comforting to me. I haven’t read it in many years, but when we moved into smaller quarters two years ago, and were ruthlessly downsizing even our library of books, I couldn’t part with my battered old copy of Pilgrim’s Inn.
This is a confession: I collect Orphan Annie reprints, the earlier ones from the 1930s. I can’t explain the attraction, but I will haul one or two out, especially this time of year, and read them. I think the daily and Sunday series from 1932 is my very favorite. I cannot explain the attraction, or maybe I don’t want to know the attraction for fear it’s sinister or sick.
Do you have an embarrassing “comfort read”?