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The Consolations of Reading
With a Brief Reading List for 2023
A Scottish philosopher—Hugh Blair, I think—once observed that, contrary to the assertions of some, happiness is not intrinsically a matter of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Many things that require strenuous physical exertion (Blair gave the example of rowing) or mental focus (for me, the best example is chess) can be immensely enjoyable. Their appeal, Blair suspected, lies in the fact that they allow you to focus your mind on something outside yourself, something that demands and rewards your attention because of its intrinsic beauty, because it requires you to make a valued contribution (rowing is teamwork) or because of the satisfaction that having done it will bring (that’s the way I feel after my daily run). Listening to people talk about how rewarding they find it to have children—even though that involves so much work, responsibility and anxiety—I think the same mechanism may be at work there: there is something deeply comforting in focusing your attention on an object outside yourself.
Reading provides a relief from the self that I find particularly soothing when I’m anxious, depressed or unwell. Yet, paradoxically, part of what seduces us when we willingly immerse ourselves in fiction is that we recognise, in the characters and stories, things that resonate deeply with us—no matter how superficially unlike us those characters are or how distant in time or space their lives. Great writing is addressed to everyone with the intellect and heart to understand it. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am a man—nothing human is alien to me), writes the Roman playwright Terence. Good writers can make even literally alien experiences, as in sci fi, immediate and relevant to us. A great autobiographical writer can even reveal specific, intimate details of her life and leave me nevertheless feeling that it is my secrets that she is revealing and with the wonderful sensation that my raw and turbulent emotions have been understood, forgiven and sublimated into art.
In a famous passage of literary criticism, T. S. Eliot writes,
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
By this, Eliot means that the writer’s skill lies in finding the character, story, images or phrases that will prompt in the reader the emotions he wishes to convey. The skilled writer, to my mind, is like an oboist playing the clear A that allows the orchestra to tune up: every instrument from the piccolo to the double bass can reproduce that note. And when you begin reading a great novel it can feel as though you have been scratching away at your fiddle on your own and now, suddenly, the individual thread of sound is merged into the fullness of a symphony.
As we begin 2023, here are 10 books I recommend—not because you need to have read them or should read them, to educate or better yourself, or because they are objectively the best—but just because they are among my personal all-time favourites and sprang instantly to mind as books I found comforting and, should you need comfort in this coming year, I hope they will provide that for you, too. Most of them are well known, but it’s such an eclectic list that hopefully you’ll find at least one that you haven’t yet read.
George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871–72). Eliot’s novel is full of deeply perceptive portrayals of human nature and provides a masterclass in empathy, but it’s not heavy. Originally serialised in instalments in a popular magazine, it’s divided into short chapters and laced throughout with the author’s delicious sense of the ridiculous.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813). If you haven’t read this classic, you are in for a treat. The lush BBC costume drama adaptations of this are fun, but not a patch on the book itself. Austen is a startlingly innovative writer: in particular in her technique of indirect free speech, in which she narrates the story through the eyes of specific characters—characters who are often comically mistaken or misguided. The book begins with a famous example of this. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she writes. This is not Austen’s opinion, however, but that of Mrs Bennett, her protagonist’s mother: a gossipy chatterbox and meddler with five daughters to marry off. (You can also listen to my interview with Austen scholar John Mullan here, if you like.)
Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). The ability to construct a really good plot is an underrated skill. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Tom Jones as having “one of the three most perfect plots ever planned” (alongside Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist). It’s also an extremely funny novel and a wonderful adventure story and romp.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) Poems. If you’re unfamiliar with Hopkins’ striking, idiosyncratic and yet very immediate and vivid poetry, I hope you will fall in love with it as deeply as I have. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out like shining from shook foil/It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil/Crushed.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). An extraordinarily economical novel that covers a wide range of topics in its slender pages. The setting is fantastical—a distant planet emerging from an ice age, inhabited by oestrus-dependent hermaphrodites—yet every element is crucial to the tale.
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (1981–91). While I enjoy Rushdie’s novels, the chaotic, kaleidoscopic narratives and magic realistic flights of fancy aren’t my favourite style. But I find his essays insightful and moving, especially his celebration of all things mixed, hybrid, miscegenated and mongrel.
A. A. Milne, The Red House Mystery (1922). Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are rightly celebrated. (I didn’t realise until I reread them as an adult just how hilarious and astute they are). But he also wrote a perfectly constructed murder mystery novel for adults, which demonstrates the same understanding of character that he shows in his children’s books.
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (1995). Perhaps the one book on this list that is not intuitively comforting. It’s a truly heartwrenching story, but the craftsmanship of this panoramic history tale of 70s and 80s India and Mistry’s clear-eyed and unromantic compassion for his compatriots make it a masterpiece. I cried more than I’ve probably cried over any other book, but it left me feeling deep gratitude.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities (Wahlverwandtschaften) (1809). Goethe’s subtle exploration of the conflict between two contrasting ways of looking at the world: the Romantic, with its emphasis on spontaneity, authenticity and feeling (and its tendency towards morbid introspection and self-indulgence) and the Classical, with its fondness for wittiness, intellectual clarity and good sense (and tendency towards coldness and stuffiness).
Samuel Johnson, The Rambler (1750). The weekly essays Johnson produced for his essay-periodical (rather like a modern-day Substack newsletter) can be found in collections of his works and also be read for free online here. While lots of people are familiar with him as a lexicographer and for the one-liners he loved to feed his biographer James Boswell (often trolling him, to put it in modern terms), not enough people are familiar with his own writing. He is both an extraordinarily sharp-witted satirist and unfailingly compassionate and humane—a rare combination. To get a flavour of this, I recommend beginning here.
Please feel free to share your recommendations with me in the comments. Meanwhile, may whatever books you read this year bring you joy.
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