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Sickroom Reading

You are confined to bed. Your eyes feel as if they have been pulled farther apart. A gritty smoke of feverish thoughts fills the space between. You turn on the TV, but old reruns and soaps and trash-talk shows only make you more aware of how lousy you feel. You want to read; you want to lose yourself in a book. After all, that’s what books are for — they are the light-footed transports for carrying you out of yourself.

So. What do you read? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Crown offered some excellent reading advice (h/t: Books, Inq.). In fact, she broke down her advice into three convenient rules:

     1. Don’t tackle anything new. “Just as the point at which you’re lying feverish and fretful in your bed is not the moment to send out to the brand-new super-spicy curry house round the corner,” Crown wrote, “so it is not the moment to essay an untested novel, either.”
     2. No horror. That is, in Crown’s portmanteau, no “laceration/disemboweling/putrefaction.”
     3. Old favorites that strike the right “balance of familiarity, likeability and narrative” — those are the best. “Detective fiction,” Crown says, “hits all three spots perfectly.”

As someone who’s spent some time there and given some thought to the question, I was particularly interested in Crown’s rules for sickroom reading. Although she never says as much, Crown is pretty clearly talking about an illness that is not life-threatening. The rules change when you are facing death.

Unlike Crown, I was unsuccessful at reading detective fiction while I was sick. I tried everyone from the violent and straight-talking (Ross Macdonald, James Crumley) to the elegant and puzzling (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout). Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t keep the suspects and the clues straight. My fuzzy brain quickly got hopelessly lost.

Nor did I follow (by anticipating it) the advice to avoid anything new and stick to old favorites. If by “new” Crown means experimental writing, writing that sets out to accomplish something never attempted before, she is spot-on. William Vollman may be a great writer, but his Europe Central, which I had been meaning to get to ever since it won the National Book Award in 2005, dropped me into a groaning sleep. Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, David Mitchell, John Banville — their new books left me weakened, coughing.

The ideal prescription for sickbed reading is what Crown describes as a balance of familiarity, likeability, and narrative. But the rule of familiarity doesn’t have to be satisfied by familiar authors. A familiar kind of writing is enough to do the trick. I reread John Williams’s Stoner, but what was soothing was its quiet beauty, not my long acquaintance with it. (At least that’s why I’d recommend it to other sickroom patients.)

Old-fashioned plot-driven storytelling was deeply comforting, even where I was unused to the writers: Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, John P. Marquand’s H. M. Pulham, Esquire, William Maxwell’s Folded Leaf, anything by P. G. Wodehouse — books that are removed from the buzzing and humming present, yet written in a near-contemporary style (reading them was not like learning a new language), light on social concerns, thick with human drama. I don’t know whether such reading is fit for every sickroom. But this is the kind of reading that, at least in my bilious experience, is the best place to start.