In Maine, winter is the perfect time for reading. The days are short, and aside from shoveling, outside chores are few. There are always inside chores, of course, but even so there are plenty of quiet opportunities for reading.
This winter, I have been thinking about the various reasons we read. On a pragmatic level, we read for basic information—manuals, how-to books, tutorials on the Internet. These can be a big help with projects as diverse as cooking to the most cost-effective way to fence in your yard for the dog.
We also read for intellectual ideas, and right now I’m slowly and with great difficulty working my way through Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. At times, I am absolutely stupefied by so much technical information about the workings of Wall Street, but still I read on, figuring that even if I only absorb a fraction of the book, I will know more than I did before I started.
We read for enlightenment and enlargement. For this we usually turn to the great novels—Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick. Often these books require effort on our part, but when we are finished, we feel as though we have gained a glimpse of something essential about life and human nature.
Last but certainly not least, we read for pleasure and comfort. The value of this kind of reading cannot (and should not) be underestimated. Life can be joyous, but it can also be hard, and the older a person becomes, the more loss she or he has endured. Loved ones die, illness comes. That is the way of things, and somehow we must cope.
When life becomes hard, I turn to books for comfort, often Miss Read. Somehow, reading about life in an English village in the 1950s has a calming effect on me. I am always absorbed by the descriptions of nature, the sympathetic yet shrewd take on human nature, and the humor.
Lately, I have discovered Gervase Phinn, another English writer. (Do you think there is a trend here?) Phinn writes memoirs of his time as a school inspector in North Yorkshire, beginning in the 1980s. He is not a great stylist, but his books have a wonderful narrative flow, with vivid descriptions of teachers, students, parents, and colleagues. And, he makes me laugh out loud, to the point where my husband looks at me with raised eyebrows as I chortle over a passage in Phinn’s books. How often do books make us laugh? In my experience, not very often, and a book that does is a little gem.
I have been thinking that I should start collecting “comfort” books for my home library. (I already have several Miss Read books.) That way, the books will be right there when I need them, and I can also let friends borrow them when they are going through their own hard times.