I never venture far without a book in my bag. I find it slightly disconcerting if I don’t have one near, even if I won’t need one for a particular journey. Someone once said to me that I hide behind books. There is possibly a sliver of truth in that, but I think I take comfort in them. They are my windows and mirrors: a glimpse on the world, and a reflection of me. They allow me to experience emotions I might not otherwise and allow me to find a community of people just like me.
These are some of the books I easily find comfort in, for particular reasons.
The world is without doubt a mysterious and complex place to live in. There are as many ideologies as there are pebbles on a beach. We all see the world differently and whatever we have inside us alters the view of the world outside the window. Most people read books that reflect their particular viewpoint – or is it their viewpoint is shaped by the books they read?
On the beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is a bleak apocalyptic novel, offering a worldview of the cold war but also how people feel about death. In Shute’s story, set in Australia after a nuclear war, the protagonists know they will almost certainly die, sooner rather than later. Death is something rarely discussed in society, so fiction allows that exploration in comfort. What it means it live and exist in the world is perhaps the primary concern of science fiction. The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig features an alien on earth who takes the identity of a university lecturer. However, the book is mostly centred around the home life and how humans suffer in the mundane. Mental illness is one of the hardest things for anyone to comprehend and Haig helps with magnificent storytelling and prose. There are dozens of books about political philosophy that I find push my buttons, from the obvious classics Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the more recent Bete (2014) by Adam Roberts, which investigates human rights and how society treats nature. Political fiction is one of the most personal choices there is. I recently read BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) which I found ideologically spot on, and a perfect experiment in fiction.
But how do other people see me? Indeed, how do I see myself? How do other people see you? Perhaps surprisingly, there are so many books out there that reflect part of my personality or mirror my feelings or beliefs. The much missed Graham Joyce released The Year of the Ladybird in 2013. Set in 1976, the story is about a young man, working over summer while at college, trying to figure out his relationship with his Dad and trying to understand love. Meanwhile, the wonderful Kalix the Werewolf series (which kicks off with Lonely Werewolf Girl, 2007, Martin Millar) is about someone alone and lonely on the streets of London, far from where she was brought up. Kalix struggles to fit in, with anyone, and fails to understand the world she lives in. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books also spoke to me as she uses magic to explore London.
Imagine a selection of characters with traits and experiences at the edge of imagination: sentient creatures that fly; artists and scientists exploring form and the limits of knowledge; ganglords and demons; hive minds and multi-dimensional beings. I think I have a decent imagination, but nothing compared to the world China Miéville creates in Perdido Street Station (2000). How can these things, these beings come to life in a fiction. Miéville’s skill is that in the Bas-Lag universe, the bizarre and the perverse seem normal. I can experience, through him, what he thinks it would be like to be a de-winged flyer or to experience an hallucinogen secreted by giant moth-like beings. But I can also experience how a scientist works and how an artist thinks. In fiction, I can experience fear while being safe. I can be creeped out while knowing there’s nothing hiding under the bed that wants to hurt me. House of Leaves was also published in 2000. I would suggest it was produced – as opposed to written – by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is an extraordinary work and I’ll bang on about it relentlessly if I need to. The plot summary is complex and perhaps unnecessary to know in detail. A self-confessed unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though there is no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed. The book is mostly a report on the fictional film which contains the description of a family moving to a house in Virginia. The house changes. There are doors and spaces that shouldn’t exist. It is changing size. Meanwhile, the family starts falling apart. It is hard to describe the narrative, but the feelings it engenders are easy: amazement at the achievement, wonder at the imagination and being genuinely creeped out but the prose. I really find an odd sense of joy in Danielewski’s achievement, and solace in knowing these things aren’t real. Maybe.
But if I’m not in the mood to be freaked out, books of course, bring humour like no other medium. While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1985) works well on radio, and less so on TV and film, for me it shines in print. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Utter and hilarious genius. Books take you on so many journey’s and Adams’ one is full of wit and verve, and is also damn proper science fiction too. Not just a pastiche or a piss-take.
Another safe space for me are old favourites with beloved characters. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) features such heart-warming, joyful relationships between the central characters as they head off for first contact with aliens, that I just love spending time with them. Despite knowing what happens, I re-read the book every 10 years or so. When you think that there are so many books out there, re-reading – especially more than once, might seem like an odd thing to do. But it is about comfort and familiarity for me, and not just exploring new things. So reading a favourite is like drinking proper hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows. I will always be happy to pick up Never Let Me Go (1995, Kazuo Ishiguro) or Ammonite (1993, Nicola Giffith) for example.
Reading is, perhaps, the most solitary of pursuits (which suits me), but sometimes it is vital almost, to know there are other people out there who feel just like I do. A couple of recent books that I’ve talked a lot about before exemplify this. All the birds in the sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders and A long way to small angry planet (2015) by Becky Chambers – which are both about accepting the differences in people – have received such a community buzz that it is simply awesome to know that a bunch of strangers enjoy the same things you do, and probably think in similar ways too.
The great and still missed Bill Hicks had a routine:
“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”
That’s one reason, and brilliant reason at that, to read. But the main one is to find comfort. That’s me in the corner. Behind a book. Not hiding, living.