Sunday, 13 April 2014

Reading cure

It's a myth that when you're ill, you catch up on all that reading that's been piling up behind the armchair.

In my book pile there's all sorts of interesting stuff and I've just had a vile cold for three weeks, but I couldn't concentrate at all, so I haven't touched the pile.

On the other hand, I did want to read and I didn't want to read rubbish. I don't lose my critical faculties when I'm ill - I just want to read stuff that's quite straightforward, or so short that I've a chance of staying awake till the end.

So here are some books I'd pick off my shelves for a good friend who's just retreated under their duvet with a nasty bug.

Any Maigret novel by Simenon. They're entirely predictable - everyone assumes the obvious culprit did the crime, but Inspector Maigret sits in bars, watches people, mulls, and then conducts an all-night interrogation in his office, smoking pipe after pipe. It's wonderfully soothing.

This is pure comfort reading - I started reading Maigret when I was at school, and I studied French at university so I could spend a year drinking in ill-lit Parisian bars like Maigret. I never made it to Paris, but I still love the novels.

My comedy comfort-reading equivalent to Simenon is a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I've read them all, and am always happy to tuck myself into one again. It's like eating a bar of milk chocolate in your pyjamas. Sheer indulgence.

Lydia Davis's short stories. 
Short stories are great when you can only stay awake for half an hour, and Lydia Davis's are brilliant - they're hugely varied, though she does have a distinctive deadpan tone, and often surprising. And they're really short, most of them, so you can read one, reread it, and fall asleep thinking about it.

I’ve just reread 'The Cottages', in which the narrator simply describes two old women she knows, and in the gaps between the two descriptions lies some kind of revelation. It's three pages long, and beautiful. Here's the opening:

'She is seventy-nine or so, and on the one hand it's hard to talk to her (she has come to dinner, it's just the two of us; she eats much more than I thought an old lady would ...'

Diaries: when I'm not up to doing anything, it's good to live vicariously and read about what other people have been up to. My ideal diary is one with a bit of self-deprecation, a dry wit, and a seam of anger. Chris Mullins is great for this, and in moments of feeling glum, I also go back to Alan Bennett:

'When I come back from filming - emerge, as Goffman would say, from an intense and prolonged period of social interaction - I feel raw, as if I have in some unspecified way made a fool of myself.' (Filming and Rehearsing, 18 March 1978)

Novels: I've just read Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. What a joy - an old-fashioned novel, with characters you care about and puzzle over, a plot with layers that you never quite know if you're going to understand, and a landscape that I feel I've lived in, so embedded was it in the story. Kent pulled me into 19th century Iceland so entirely that I emerged blinking at the end as if I too had spent a year in the darkness of a turf hut with Agnes. Awesome.

And here's the perfect novel for when you're beginning to feel better, so you can read for several hours without falling asleep. Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is the huge (738 pages) story of two families in Sheffield over several decades. It has rich characters, a delightful fondness for suburbia in the 70s and 80s, and a wry humour. Here's a joyful snippet from a scene in a supermarket:

'The Tannoy announced a good deal for today only in Gateway, ten pence in the pound off beef mince; a voice so weary with tragedy, it might have presided over the fall and decay of a thousand cities, each of them reducing beef mince by ten pence in the pound as its walls fell.'

Finally, I'd just like to say that Middlemarch is a rubbish book to read when you're ill. I read it recently, because I felt I should, and because I'd given up on it once before. I don't like giving up on books, so I persevered. And when I reached the end I realised that I had read it all the way through before, but had forgotten the whole thing. First time, I was ill with ME, and read it in a brain-dazed state. So now I've read it twice, and don't need to read it again. So there.