The other night things got morbid over the second bottle of wine. “What book have you just accepted that you will never read before you die?” asked someone, maybe me. The range of responses was wide, but the consensus was clear: life is simply too short to read. Finnegans Wake. As one of my grandfather’s T-shirts said, “So many books, so little time. My late grandfather, should I say.
And yet, like all the friends in this reading group, he was a fanatical proofreader. Even for those of us with tottering bedside stacks, oppressed by shelves of worthy tomes and gleaming towers of status galleys, sometimes there’s nothing like the familiar outlines of comfort reading.
In a way, I admire these efficient guys who never proofread, the same way I can admire people who do the polar bear dive. There is a rigor in that. Sometimes it can seem like a weakness to indulge in the familiar. And yet, most people succumb. I know one who reads American psycho every year (they miss the 90s). Another likes Jerzy Kosinski. When my mother retires from the world, she alternates between the 1960s star trek novelizations, Travis McGee novels whose twists she knows, and Schopenhauer, because it takes her back to her undergrad days.
My own comfort reads include cozy things: essays by Laurie Colwin, cookbooks by Edna Lewis, childhood favorites and ghost anthologies. But on the same shelf are books specific to the moments of safety, or just after the escape: the desolation Climates by André Maurois (read during a breakup), the disturbing 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (read during a bizarre holiday), destabilizing it After Claudius by Iris Owens (read when I was a little taken aback). They all have the blessed quality of hindsight and the bittersweet pleasure of squeezing a fading bruise.
Over the past two years I’ve been soliciting recommendations like crazy – not on what’s out or what’s new, necessarily, but on what people to like. “What do you give the most?” I ask. “What are you reading?” Several recent favorites – that is to say re-read less than five times – came out of these conversations. Rattlebone, by Maxine Clair, Denton Welch’s Inauguration trip, and tearing Meeting by Fred Uhlmann have created a portrait of the past two years that no algorithm could match. Because, really, life is too short not to reread what you love.
This story appears in the February 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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