Reading as sweet anesthesia: No harm in deadening pain

ON BOOKS

July 16, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

A few weeks ago, a treasured friend, with a busy, cultured life, faced terrifying surgery and, at best, a long immobilizing recovery. Visiting my house a few days before that, she pleaded, "I need major anesthetic distraction."

My library is jumbled, sketchy, ravaged by too many moves and unredeemed loans. There are more or less 2,200 volumes, dating back to childhood and school days. Relatively few are new. I am forever going back and dipping into books.

This I know: Reading is civilization's grandest palliative against fear and anxiety. With that truth in mind, I scanned my shelves and, within five minutes, yanked out nine books.

My friend is now well along in recovery. The return of the books set me to wondering why I chose them. So I spent a long day and then several hours of a second one wandering through them. It was delicious, of course. I met old, almost-forgotten friends. I was sent spinning back amid lovely, lively wisps of recollection.

Here those books are, with a thought or two that have something to do with why they have remained important to me. I record with each the publisher, length and the price when the books were bought. (Any energetic reader can find them all in a good shop or on the Internet -- for several times my prices. Do you remember when you could buy a new paperback for 50 cents?)

"The Ginger Man," by J. P. Donleavy (Dell, paperback, 1975, 315 pages, $1.25): Donleavy's masterwork, first published in 1955. The immortal prayer, "God's mercy on the wild Ginger Man" is the final statement of this inexplicably magic novel. Sebastian Dangerfield, despicable as he most often is, lives on as one of the most irresistible rogues of modern literature.

"Dracula," by Bram Stoker (Dell, paperback, 1977, 416 pages, $1.75): Unless you count the Bible or the entire works of Shakespeare as one book, I can think of no single volume that has sown a greater number of immortal images. Here is the orchard of endless, ceaseless vampire stories, the undead, the blood-thirsting terrors of Transylvania, wooden stakes in hearts. First published in 1897, it is the only memorable work of this otherwise undistinguished Irishman. "Dracula" is better than the sum total of its imitators.

"The Human Stain," by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 361 pages, $26.00): A splendid new novel, the latest work of one of the consummately artful and perceptive novelists of the second half of the 20th century -- at his full maturity. It is a rich exploration of the causes and consequences of the lies humans live, and the smallness that can constrict academic minds. Concise, ironic, principled, beautiful.

"The Secret of Santa Vittoria," by Robert Crichton (Dell, paperback, 1967, 416 pages, 95 cents): The sweetest modern celebration of the dignity of defiance that I know. The story is told with the irrepressibly spontaneous wisdom and squabbling that brings to life the indomitable wonders of Italy. If you have any doubt that humankind's top job is survival, go back to this raucous hymn to the pure joy of life, come what may.

"The Coming of Age," by Simone de Beauvoir (Putnam, 1972, 572 pages, price lost): An early befriender of feminism and feminists, I can't imagine trying to understand the second half of the 20th century without the guidance of de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex." Given that, her "Coming of Age," first published in English in 1972, still says more than any other book I know about the challenge and complexities of growing old -- essentially undamaged by its often naive political nostrums.

"The Thurber Carnival," by James Thurber (Harper & Row, 1945, 369 pages, $5.95): Looking again and reading here and there, I have no idea of whether the words or the illustrations are more indelible. This best single compilation of one of the funniest, wisest and most civilized of America's writers is full of such stuff as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox," "The Unicorn in the Garden" -- and the cartoons originally published as "Men, Women and Dogs," a cornucopia of human truths, bold and intricate.

"The Lodger," by Marie Belloc Lowndes (Dell, paperback, 1964, 224 pages, 60 cents): First published in 1913, this is today the least known of my nine choices. It is billed as a mystery and as a thriller. But its great distinction is as a supreme example of the singularly British capacity to present, with seriousness and grace, the most appalling crimes and criminals as altogether cheery -- and cheering -- domestic improprieties.

"Letters," by John Barth (Putnam, 1979, 772 pages, $16.95): Perhaps the most under-recognized of Barth's enormously humane, hilariously funny, drivingly energetic novels. Seven highly improbable letter writers become elements of the reader's consciousness -- welcome them or not. Rich with puns, tricks and references both scholarly and outrageously inappropriate, it's inescapably captivating.

"Daughter of Fu Manchu," by Sax Rohmer (Pyramid Books, paperback, 1964, 190 pages, 50 cents): First published in 1931, one of the more fanciful episodes of the large and delicious output of Rohmer (1883-1959), who began the series with "Dr. Fu Manchu" in 1913. I can't do better than the subtitle: "Deadlier than her father, the she devil strikes!" A classic of a sui generis genre.

So? My ailing friend liked them all -- except for de Beauvoir, which she "just didn't feel up to." That's not to reject it, I think, but rather testimony to the attention it demands. The others, she reported, were all a delight and were read right through -- painlessly.

It's enough to make me yearn for the time to reread all of them -- but not, please, as an anesthetic.

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