Comfort Reading (and a little discomfort)

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I used to re-read all the time. It seems that in my youth and adolescence, I scarcely did anything but re-read, and had to be prodded into reading anything new. These days, however, I have the strong sense of the sea of books-I-have-yet-to-read, and I almost never find time to re-read, except when I’m sick. Well, a bout of pneumonia has laid me low, and in the past few days I’ve found time to read a couple of my favorites. What follows is really more rhapsody than review; please feel free to skip it.

For a long, long time Gaudy Night was my favorite book. It’s the apotheosis of Dorothy Sayers’s Wimsey-Vane mysteries, which are the best of hers (though I love others of hers, as well; Murder Must Advertise is terrific, for instance.) This time through, which may easily have been my fortieth, I took my time and savored it: Harriet’s uncertainty; her feelings of unworthiness; her slow understanding that she can really contribute to her college, as a detective and a scholar; her gradual working-out that this contribution means that she has something to contribute to another partnership, as well. And Peter Wimsey! The scene in the punt! I wanted a ruby engagement ring like Harriet’s. (I got a very lovely sapphire.) Reading this was just pure pleasure. Once, I loaned this book to someone — my reading copy — and she dropped it in her bath. I have always assumed that Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? was written about just such a scenario.

Then I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which isn’t at all unrelated to reading Gaudy Night. (There’s a Dorothy in Mary Russell’s college, who says cheerfully that she’s “going to hell with Dante.” Coincidence? I think not.) I am — just — able to admit that some of the later books in this series are better than this one, because I like to say that Russell and her partner keep getting better and better, but oh, how I do love this book. I love a smart, flawed, unexpected girl learning how to be a smart, flawed, eccentric woman (and going through some of what Harriet Vane went through, learning to contribute to a partnership.) I love a growing relationship and a wry sense of humor. I love odd skills I’ll never have, and emotional resonance. What a lovely book! What a stage-setter for a lovely series! Laurie King, may your shadow never grow bulkier.

Alas, I turned from these to Ghost Orchid, by Carol Goodman. I won’t go into detail about why I abandoned this one after forty pages. Let us just say that it was no Gaudy Night, and the writing was crummy enough that it couldn’t even distract me from my coughing. Oh well. We can’t all knock them out of the park. Onward and upward: I am just finishing my contender for Tom (Amateur Reader)’s Portuguese Literature Challenge. Hold your breath, ladies and gentlemen. This one’s going to be a doozy. Are any of you joining? What are you reading over Thanksgiving?

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30 Responses to Comfort Reading (and a little discomfort)

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m sorry to hear you’ve been sick but glad that you’re feeling better, and that you’ve had such good company. The last time I was in England, I finally got to go to Oxford, and I was so very disappointed that Balliol was closed that day, and that I couldn’t find Gaudy Night in any of the bookstores – I had set my heart on buying a copy of it in Oxford. I was also thinking of Mary Russell there, and of Connie Willis’ time-travel novels (another Peter Wimsey reader).

  2. bibliolathas says:

    Oh, two of my favourite books here (the first two, obviously). That scene in the punt! And that scene in the Botanic Gardens where happiness consists of sharing the old names of flowers and the minor Elizabethan poets. Incidentally I was disappointed by Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages which should have appealed to me (murder; ancient languages) but did not grab me at all.

    • Jenny says:

      There’s a greenhouse in the park near my house, and every time I go into it and smell all the lovely plants, I think of that scene in the Botanic Gardens. And I’m selfishly glad you were disappointed by The Lake of Dead Languages, because it means it wasn’t just me.

  3. I was much the same, a chronic rereader all through adolescence and even into my early 20s. It wasn’t really until 2007 when I moved in with my boyfriend and I organised all my books. That’s when I realised just how many more books I wanted to read. Sadly since then I have rarely reread. Those that I have are usually rereads from my childhood and whilst most of them were as great as I remember, some didn’t live up to my memory of them sadly.

    • Jenny says:

      One of my favorite things is when a book I loved as a child actually does live up to my memory of it. My favorites mostly do. I re-read Little Women recently, and it was just as good as I thought it would be.

  4. Deb says:

    Re-reading requires a commitment of time and, as we get older, time is a more precious commodity–especially when (even after culling) one’s TBR mountain is still well over 300 books. I think adolescence is the time to re-read, you really internalize those books. I must have read JANE EYRE, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, GONE WITH THE WIND, and Anya Seton’s medieval romance KATHERINE a hundred times in rotation. As you age, you don’t need to absorb, almost eat, those words the way you did as a teenager.

    I love the three Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books that lead up to their marriage. There’s also one about a murder they solve on their honeymoon (BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON)–which is not as good, you almost feel that Sayers’s was let-down by having to let Lord Peter finally get married.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right about adolescence being the time to re-read, though I sometimes wish I had read some things I’m reading now during that time. I could really stand to re-read the Lymond Chronicles a few more times, and some of the great classics, like War and Peace, but I just haven’t got time.

      I like Busman’s Honeymoon, but I’m not as passionate about it as I am about Gaudy Night.

  5. Jeanne says:

    I reread when a situation or feeling or phrase from a book has taken up residence in my head. I watch movies again, too, for the same reason. I agree that in adolescence we internalize books, but as I age, I find myself wanting to make conscious the unconscious connections I’m making between what happens, what I’ve read, and the options for responding. Maybe it’s an introvert thing? Sometimes I use rereading to help me write little scripts for what to say when that particular situation comes up.

    • Jenny says:

      Wow, Jeanne. I do that, too, and I always have. Even though I know I will probably never need to do quite exactly that thing, I want to slip into that situation again and again — have that exact emotional resonance — so I will be able to do it when I need to. Odd, because as I get older the emotional resonance doesn’t stay the same, and my re-reading changes, but I still do it.

  6. So sorry to hear about your pneumonia! I had it last October and, as with any illness, it sent me running to my shelves looking for favourites to reread. There is something particularly satisfying about beloved mysteries as sickbed reading too, particularly character-driven ones like Sayers’ or King’s. I haven’t been keeping up with the Mary Russell series the last couple of years but an entire series reread is high on my list of things to do this winter!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I hope you get to it — and I hope you don’t have to get sick to do it! I’d like to re-read the whole series, too. Reading just the first one was *so* satisfying.

  7. You just convinced me. I’m reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice this week! And Gaudy Night is going on my tbr list. Rereading is a constant temptation for me. For instance, I’ve read George Eliot’s Middlemarch three times, and will probably read it again. In some ways I think I only really *get* a book on a second reading.But then there are so many books, and so little time! Such a conundrum.

    • Jenny says:

      I wish I’d read Middlemarch three times! And I know what you mean about only getting something on a second reading. There are several books I hated as an adolescent and loved on a second try. And yet there are thousands of books I still want to read! Oh well. Everything is a joy.

  8. Oh no, feel better! Pneumonia is the worst! I always, always re-read Jane Eyre in such circumstances. :-)

    I have yet to read ANY Sayers, which I feel a little embarrassed about as I know I would like her. But she’s the kind of thing I normally listen to on audiobook, and I can’t find audio recordings of her work. Which in itself is odd, and I guess I’m holding out. We’ll see for how long.

    • litlove says:

      I am so sorry to hear you’ve had pneumonia – take it easy for as long as you can; it’s can be a debilitating illness. I hardly ever reread, but I do love rereading crime fiction, particularly Agatha Christie (my version of Sayers, but I love Sayers too and will reread her next, I daresay). Feel better soon and keep on with the therapeutic reading!

      • Jenny says:

        Litlove, I usually choose favorites from my childhood when I’m ill. But crime fiction seemed perfect this time, and it was. Thanks for the well-wishes!

    • litlove says:

      Emily – the BBC did a series of dramatisations of Sayers novels with the wonderful Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. The only one I didn’t enjoy was Gaudy Night, alas, because he sounds SO elderly in it! But he’s brilliant in Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors and Busman’s Honeymoon. I bought my audio books recently, so I’m thinking they ought to be readily available still!

      • Deb says:

        Ian Carmichael was also Lord Peter in a series of TV adaptations done in the 1970s (in fact, my copy of CLOUDS OF WITNESS has a photo of Carmichael as Lord Peter taken from the TV show). They were quite good (especially THE NINE TAILORS); I don’t believe the shows with Carmichael included the Harriett Vane mysteries though.

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, you’d love Sayers. So satisfying. But don’t be embarrassed. There are thousands of books I’ve never read and would love. This is just part of the list!

      Jane Eyre. What a good idea. :)

  9. Steph says:

    I have been so happy to hear from fans of the Mary Russell series that it continues to strengthen and improve as it goes on, because I have loved it since the first book and I can’t imagine it getting any better! I’m only about 4 volumes in at this point, but it makes me very very happy to know that I have so many more books in this series to look forward to!

    I didn’t much care for Gaudy Night when I read it last (?) year but based on all the feedback I received when I wrote about it, i attribute this to the fact that it was the first Sayers novel I had ever read and so I really wasn’t poised to appreciate it, given that it is a culmination. I will have to revisit Sayers one day, because I feel like we just didn’t get off on the right foot.

    • Jenny says:

      Teresa, I think, is always prepared for the Russell series to start going downhill every time she reads a new one, because series do tend to do that after a while. Myself, I read each new one with total confidence, because I am convinced that Russell and Holmes are real. I’m not sure which approach is better. :)

      I can’t give you much advice about not liking Gaudy Night, because I can’t get in that space! I might try to read the three first Harriet-and-Peter mysteries in order, though. Or even start with Strong Poison (the first of those) and then read Murder Must Advertise, which doesn’t have Harriet in it at all. See what you think.

  10. I hope you are feeling better now and will soon regain your full health and strength.

    I re-read all the time. This year I re-read every single Georgette Heyer and loved them all. I read Gaudy Night each year and love it each time and oh yes the scene in the punt – be still my beating heart!

    I am currently just finishing a re-read of the Palliser novels of Trollope and re-read the Barchester Chronicles last year. Sometimes I just ignore the pile of books waiting my attention and my review and turn to an old and loved book. Anne of Green Gables is another I read and re-read as it always does me good to make the acquaintance of Anne with an E again!

    • Jenny says:

      Elaine, your re-reading is literally an inspiration! Much of my own Trollope reading, and all of my Heyer reading, is directly attributable to you, plus did you see that I read that Rubio biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery? I have had a lot of pleasure out of YOUR re-reading. Such a joy.

  11. Oh yes, who else is joining? Look at all of the nifty Portuguese books! Good, good stuff.

    Illness changes all of the reading rules, as does travel. Some books drain our energy, some seem to boost it. Helpful to know which are which.

    I have enjoyed reading Rohan Maitzen’s advocacy for Gaudy Nights and I will read it someday, perhaps on an train or an ocean liner.

  12. Bookish Hobbit says:

    The books I haven’t read yet do prevent me from re-reading quite often, so I know what you mean. It’s hard to remember the last time I re-read something like The Virgin Suicides or Antibodies, which seemed to figure in my adolescent reading a few times.

    I’m wanting to finish Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope this week. After that I’m not sure… I have some library books that came in so I’ll probably pick up one of those and see how it goes.

    Hope you get better soon! *sending virtual hugs your way*

  13. bookmagic says:

    I hope you feel better! I have only read one Sayers book, I’ve always meant to read more. I love to re-read favorites. It especially helps me when I’m in a reading drought. Ghost Orchid was not one of Goodman’s best. The Seduction of Water and The Drowning Tree are much better.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I hope you feel better soon!

  15. Jenny says:

    Feel better! I don’t reread as much as I used to, partly because I’ve been so far from my parents’ house, where there are tons of books from my childhood and adolescence sitting around and easily grabbable. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to acquire some of those books for myself, but it’s slow going and not enough bookshelf space. Never enough bookshelf space.

  16. Christy says:

    The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is my favorite of the series hands-down. I have not read the most recent two or three in the series, but I don’t think every book in the series has been uniformly great. I remember being a bit bored with Justice Hall and also The Moor seemed weaker. But my affection was secured by the first book.

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