The Book Meme: Day 15

Day 15 - Your "comfort" book

Some of these entries require me to think while I'm writing, on the off chance that I'll remember a better choice than the one I initially made. That's not going to happen today. Comfort books are certainly something I go to frequently, and I do have more than one, but there's one at the top of the list, and I'm unlikely to change my mind about it.

When I went to Manchester for my junior year of college, I had to whittle down my library to a few choice items. I thus have a fairly good idea of what books I felt I really *needed* to have on hand. I ended up taking three different novels, plus my dictionary and my thesaurus.

The first, as you'll be unsurprised to learn, was The Lord of the Rings, which remains a story I return to when I'm feeling down or uncertain, but even a guy who has re-read it as often as I have knows that it's a serious time commitment. In recent years, however, I have made Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring into a miniature version of re-reading the whole trilogy. Instead of diving in for a week or two, I just pop in our DVD of the extended edition and lose myself for a few hours. It remains my favorite of the three films, even though much of the early action is minimized or ignored (e.g. Tom Bombadil) in order to get the hobbits to Rivendell in a hurry. Still, there was no question that I would make room for all three volumes on my shelf in my room at Grosvenor Place.

The book that sat beside Tolkien's was Richard Adams' Watership Down, which remains one of the great stories I've ever read. Its depiction of lapine culture is lovely and rich, but the detailed description of the world the rabbits inhabit is perhaps its greatest strength; it is so specific and vivid that the fantasies of rabbit sentience, let alone language and folklore, seem utterly plausible. It's a gorgeous place to visit, and standing in the beeches on top of the Down remains something for my bucket list.

But it was the third book on my Grosvenor shelf that I consider my true comfort book, for all that I've re-read it far less than the first two. I save it for the moments when I truly need comfort, because it offers exactly that, and in several ways. The book is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Many people who read it seem primarily interested in the improbable adventures of Mr. Toad, but I am not one of them. For me, there are three key portions of the book, and each one offers comfort of a different sort.

The section where Mole goes into the Wild Wood remains one of the most blood-chilling things I've ever read. Grahame builds the tension perfectly, raising the stakes from small sounds to louder sounds to brief glimpses of danger, and the helplessness and uncertainty Mole feels are echoed in the reader's mind. As a result, his unexpected rescue and removal to safety offers a huge dose of relief--a sense that the anxiety is gone. Sometimes this is the most important kind of comfort, though it's really more that discomfort has ended.

The second crucial section is the chapter entitled "Dulce Domum." I did not know what that Latin motto meant when I first read the book, but its context was absolutely clear. Mole has been staying in Rat's riverside abode for some months when suddenly he is electrified by the distant scent of his own home. His loyalty to Ratty keeps him marching away from it, but his misery is palpable, and his misery's effect on the Rat is important. This is where I learned the power of two things: trying to see another's point of view, and apologizing for one's misdeeds. Ratty is never more heroic than when he is calling himself names and turning Mole back, unless it's when he enters Mole's home for the first time and can't stop saying good things about it. And when the scene settles into a vision of Christmas plenty, it's simply gorgeous. This is where I learned about the comfort to be found in empathy--a kind that we can so easily offer one another, and so often don't.

Finally, there is "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," which remains such a beautiful piece of work that I can barely talk about it coherently. In it, the animals search for a child gone missing, and when they stumble upon him at last, they encounter the Divine. I refuse to spoil it more than that, except to say that this is where the book offers a vision of universal order, a sense that we and everything around us form part of a grand design. Even more remarkable for a book written in Edwardian England, that Divinity and design are not portrayed as specifically Christian. The didacticism of C.S. Lewis is nowhere to be found. This is instead something universal, pure and ecstatic. It is a comfort extended to everyone and everything. It is joy.

Sometimes I need relief, sometimes empathy. And on occasion, I may have a moment of joy. But if I need a moment of any of them, I always know where to look.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 21, 2018 12:49 PM.

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