Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Books We Return To

I’ve written on bedtime books before, but I’d like to tweak the topic a bit and ruminate on bedside books—that is, those books that stay by the bedside and that we turn and return to whenever we have the reading itch but don’t know exactly what it is we want to read. These authors are on speed dial—in Johnny-Rotten-Speak, they provide a satisfying scratch even when we “don’t know what we want, but we know how to get it” (or, in a less safety-pin-ridden variation on this theme, when we peevishly glance at a bookcase and think “Here we are now; entertain us”). A similar thing happens with food—one feels snacky or vaguely hungry, but without a focused craving. Whenever I’m feeling that way, I usually reach for the easiest fix—KD, ramen noodles, a handful of nuts, a peach, a frozen dinner. Why put a bunch of effort into making something when I don’t know what it is I want to make? But we don’t have to make books, just enjoy them, and so it is possible, book-wise, to try to resolve your unfocused craving by taking a tentative nibble of coq au vin or a forkful of soufflé just to see if it suits your present whims.

Now that I think of it, it’s not just by the bedside that these kinds of books live. One might keep them in a bookcase close to a favoured comfy chair, or even on a chair by the kitchen table. The key is easy access; part of the pleasure of these books is that they’re always patiently waiting for me instead of needing to be found. Sure, one could always flop down in said chair and fire up a smart phone or tablet, but sometimes we crave something a bit more substantial than the informational sugar-rush we mainline from the Internet, and sometimes, instead of speed-dating authors as we do while surfing, we want to hunker down with a familiar companion who tells tales that become more burnished with each telling.

It’s likely everyone has different tastes when it comes to I-want-to-read-but-I-don’t-know-what books. Probably taking a cue from the 365 Bedtime Stories book I had beside my bed when I was but a boy, I favour big books full of little pieces, and in particular essays. I can open George Orwell’s Essays at any page at any time and find something worth reading, even if I’ve read the piece ten times before. It’s Orwell’s wonderfully lucid style that is the initial attractant; even if the subject is difficult, the reading is easy, and one can slip into an essay like one slips into a warm bath. But, even better, as you settle in you find that the bathtub becomes first a pond, then a lake, and then an ocean in which you can float around on your back, soaking up the sun on the surface, or jackknife down into chillier depths, depending on how hard you want to swim.

G. K. Chesterton is a less-known gem of a essayist, more whimsical by far than Orwell—one can’t imagine Orwell writing an ecstatic essay on chasing his wind-blown hat. Chesterton’s prose is full of playful twists and turns but, as with Orwell, after following the dancing thread of his thought, you may glance up and find yourself in the middle of a deep wood. No matter; plunge into the darkness between the trees if you like or keep to the bright path. Finally, I and Thou is certainly Martin Buber’s best-known book (You don’t even have to read the whole book to have it change you—just read the first two pages. If they leave you cold, then they’re not for you. But if they speak to you, you’ll not see the world in the same way again.), but I’ve been dipping into his Tales of the Hasidim for decades. It’s full of very brief anecdotes about Hasidic religious masters, and I read and re-read them mostly because, although the majority of them are a paragraph or two long and are told in simple, entertaining prose, I still very often don’t have a clue what’s going on, though I can sense that, whatever it is, it’s something profound, even if it sometimes seems merely absurd. Buber’s stories are bite-sized, but you can chew on them indefinitely. Sometimes I sit there trying to work things out, and sometimes I just go “Hmmm” and turn out the light. Either way, I sleep on a full belly.

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