Choosing to read (and what)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we decide what we’re going to read – something even more fascinating these days, when we have online material of all kinds in the picture.

This fall, I’ve been spending a lot of mental (and emotional, and physical) energy on work, so by the time I get home, I’m often not up for anything particularly challenging. I’ve been reading a lot of comfort reading (more on this below) and also a lot of things that are sheer mindcandy enjoyment, without a lot of challenge.

But I’m starting to miss the challenge. I want to dig my teeth into a complex book about desires, issues, and skills important in my religious community. I want to go digging deeper into history – especially social history – in several areas. A recent discussion as part of my school newspaper advising reminded me that my ability to explain statistics is not as good as I’d like. (I can recognise problems, but not always explain the issues behind the numbers, basically). And all of those things are slowly coming back online, as I start being able to look at something outside of work with a clear mind.

Until then, though, there’s the comfort reading. Comfort reading refers to the books or authors we return to, again and again, where the plots and characters are enjoyable, but not startling. There are no stunning unexpected plot twists, or ideas that must be pieced together from tiny fragments throughout the story. They’re often simply good stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) told in a compelling way.And one of my personal requirements is that I’ve got to be able to put the book down when I’m tired, otherwise I end up tired and cranky, which is not comforting. (For example, I regularly reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s works, but only when I know I have time to finish them before I should be asleep: once I’m into the last half to third of the book, I feel compelled to keep reading until done.)

People have very individual ideas of comfort reading. Some of mine include:

– Dorothy Sayers – a longtime favorite of my father, and my inherited copies are now all falling into pieces.

– Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, oddly enough, a book (and miniseries) I came to very early in life, and where my understanding of the book has continued to deepen and grow.

– Mercedes Lackey – an author of urban fantasy and fantasy novels. I started reading her work at pretty much exactly the right age, and while they’re not the most complex stories out there, they continue to pull me in. (They’re also light, and follow some fairly predictable tropes, which makes them easy to put down when I need sleep.)

– Historical mysteries in general – I get to enjoy an interesting setting, a plot that has a clear goal, and usually interesting characters sustained over multiple books (which means I don’t have to get to know a whole new set of characters each time.) I’m very fond of the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters,  the Mary Russell books by Laurie King, and the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear, but there are lots of others. (I spent a lot of the summer reading Laurie Joh Rowland’s series set in Tokugawa-era Japan, for example.)

– Microhistories, which I’ve talked about on this blog recently.

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