The books we turn back to
The other night, looking for a little bookish companionship between work and bed — everyone else in the house, including the cats, was asleep — I picked up a volume of Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories, and soon it was as if I was sitting outside the Brasserie Dauphine with a glass of beer and a pipe.
Opening a new book carries the same sense of risk and discovery as being introduced to a person. Fascinating or a relentless bore? A companion or a tease? But there are times when it is better just to sit down with an old friend to renew the acquaintance.
Every few years I go back to Trollope’s Barchester Towers, to that compact little world of Anglican country cathedral politics with its lovingly delineated personalities. Archdeacon Grantley jealously guarding clerical prerogatives and perquisites, Mrs. Proudie aggressively pushing Low-Churchiness. Best book of the Barchester sequence.
I still like Pnin better than Nabokov’s more ambitious novels: perfect in its scope and structure, funny and humane. A couple of years ago, at this blog, I quoted one of my favorite passages.
Every time I pick up Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets I find something new. It is a mature work, the product of a lifetime’s reading and reflecting on literature and human character. And while his sympathy for the human struggle against adversity and disappointment is moving, it is also gratifying to see how deftly he slips the knife in when the subject is someone he does not much like.
Gatsby! Is there anyone who has not re-read Gatsby with delight? If it weren’t for Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby would be the American novel. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop can still make me laugh out loud. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop evokes the landscape of the Southwest. Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution is the academic novel, packed with epigrammatic observations on the characters that are another pleasure to quote. Joan Didion’s essays are still as sharp as when I first encountered them.
Murder mysteries are a particular subcategory, because (you’ve heard this one before) after a long day of working with professional journalists, nothing is more gratifying than sitting in a comfortable chair, with a good light and a strong drink at your elbow, to read about disagreeable people meeting violent death.
I have the advantage of forgetting the plots almost immediately, so that every few years I can turn over Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries again. At the Book Thing, I picked up a couple of anthologies of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels, which I hadn’t read for thirty years, and rediscovered how good he is at writing about crime in California. P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. All good, reliable friends over the years.
By all means keep making new friends, but don’t forget your old ones.