Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Comfort Zone

By Stuart Sharp

Some books are better than others. Some are more sophisticated than others. Some are more serious. But are some books more comfortable than others? And if so, what is it that makes them so comfortable?

The idea that some books are more comfortable than others is fairly easy to prove. First, picture the last book that you read in a couple of sittings; preferably something that made you feel nicely warm and fuzzy. Now picture the complete works of Emile Zola. It’s not a foolproof method, because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone somewhere who thought of La Debacle for the first part of that experiment, but I’d bet that most people didn’t for the simple reason that it’s a hugely uncomfortable book.

There are, as this experiment shows, books out there that are difficult, awkward and spiky; books that don’t so much pull you along as grate their way across the brain. That doesn’t make them bad books. Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners is as weird and uncomfortable as you could wish, but it’s still the best such collection I’ve read in years. Tricia Sullivan’s Someone to Watch Over Me is the same, almost painful with its twisting awkwardness, but still an excellent novel nonetheless.

In contrast, there are other books that are like a warm fluffy pillow to the brain, soft and comfortable and rarely any difficulty. Most chick-lit aims for this, as indeed does romance, family drama and even a lot of thrillers. Yes, thrillers. Dan Brown, Chris Ryan and company have made careers out of comfort, putting together books that for all their violent moments never make the mistake of forcing the reader into any painful thinking. They’re unlikely to be accused of great literature, but they have got the knack of putting together very readable books.

But how do they do it? What exactly is it that makes one book comfortable while another seems to work to keep the reader out? The writing’s readability is one part of it. As someone more than a little in love with the sub-sub-sub-clause, you’d think I wouldn’t mind a bit of slow pacing, clunky sentence construction and stilted dialogue. You’d be wrong though. Like most people these days, my reading brain demands sentences pared to the bone, plot that starts instantly and keeps moving, and absolutely no paragraphs that have to be re-read three times to be understood.

Perhaps this explains why many books seem to become less comfortable over time. Writing conventions that made absolute sense to Hardy or Spencer now seem less helpful. That doesn’t make their works any less great, though I’m inclined to think that Hardy got it right when he gave up prose to concentrate on his poetry, but it does move them from the category of ‘handy beach read’ to ‘push through it because it’s one of the classics’.

The curious thing though is that not all books are affected the same way as they age. Marlowe’s work remains compelling, while medieval chansons de geste like the Song of Roland or Raoul de Cambrai are actually quite readable (so long as you don’t make the mistake of trying to work through the original Old French). From Ian Peebles’ writings on cricket to the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, some older writing seems more like a favourite old teddy bear than a forbidding elderly relative.

Of course, all this is subjective, and never is this more apparent than in the field of poetry. The strong rhymes, consistent rhythms and formal approaches of some of the great poets strike some people as comfortable reminders of the past, and others as simply out of date. Predictably enough, I can’t make up my mind, finding the work of Keats, Wordsworth and Milton inspiring and annoying by turns.

Lord Byron’s work tends to produce a slightly different reaction in me; not because of his epics or even his reputation, but because of his habit of rhyming eye with eternity. It’s a habit shared with Shakespeare, and one that has me fighting to avoid reading the poetry with the strongest Birmingham accent I can manage.

These are largely questions of style, but substance has a role to play too, as the example of the thriller writers above suggests. If the idea there is to keep things moving quickly, then there often isn’t time for the reader to start thinking. Other books aren’t looking to move so rapidly, but stay away from awkward thoughts anyway if they want to stay within the comfort zone. After all, a little light reading quickly becomes a lot heavier if the author starts asking important questions about life, the universe and so on.

And it isn’t just the weight of the words that’s an issue here. Reading is a physical experience as well as a mental one. The way a book feels, and even the way it smells, has an important impact on the pleasure of the reader. Unfortunately, being occasionally a little too clumsy for my own good, six-inch thick hardbacks also tend to have an important impact on my foot when I drop them. It’s not uncommon to see the complete works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and others bound in coffee table format. It probably makes sense from a price point of view, but not from a comfort standpoint. If you’re planning on curling up with a good book, then you want something that won’t crush you when you do.

Where you curl up with it is important, too. Reading in your favourite spot will make almost any book seem more comfortable, but I think there’s also something to be said for matching books to places. Books set in wide open spaces probably deserve to be read in the outdoors that inspired them, provided it isn’t raining or, as in my garden, frosted over. Other books deserve to be read in bedrooms, dining rooms, the half forgotten section near the back of your local library. I have to admit though that I’ve never understood the apparent connection between books and coffee shops. I’ve just never seen anything comfortable about overpriced coffee, a jittery caffeine buzz and occasional stares from owners impatient to get you out of there to make space for the next customer.

Having thought about what makes a book comfortable, I suppose I should finish by suggesting what I consider to be the most comfortable books, if not in the whole world, then at least in the mess that calls itself my bookcase. I’ve chosen three. The first, The Cricketer’s Companion edited by Alan Ross, is a fairly idiosyncratic choice, since it’s hard to find, about a sport many people find painfully odd, and also about half full of exactly the sort of poetry I complained about just a little while ago. On the other hand, it has charm, and besides, where else are you going to find Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Byron and P.G. Wodehouse side by side?

Second is Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin, although really most of his books in the series could have filled the role. Some books in the comic fantasy sub-genre manage to be uncomfortably silly, or strange, or a little too clever for their own good, but Asprin’s work is warm, enjoyable, and very funny indeed.

The final selection is something that, when I thought of it, struck me as unexpected. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, ought to have at least one thing stacked against it in the comfort stakes, and that’s Gaiman’s name on the cover. Don’t get me wrong; he is, by almost any definition, a brilliant writer. I love his novels. But he is almost the definition of the writer who produces books that manage to be weird and uncomfortable and amazing all at once. The collaboration with Pratchett softened the effect just enough though, and the two managed to produce a story about the apocalypse that manages to be funny, charming, and not uncomfortable at all.

No comments: