Soothing Reading

Recently my husband urged me to read a book. I was standing in the dining area of the apartment, surrounded by boxes and chaos. I was also having something of a mild anxiety attack. I had worked eight hours, trotted my happy little derriere off to work another three hours at the past-job-that-won’t-die, had made my daily art, even written a little, and… I was still trying to figure out what needed to be done that day as it was too early to reasonably contemplate bed.

“Read something. Nothing challenging…” He knew I’d been tackling Kuhn’s book on scientific revolutions again. “Just brain candy.”

He’d recently begun working through more of the work of a favorite author, so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d introduced him to DE Stevenson a few years ago. I’d first encountered her work in my early teens, and my mother loves her stuff as well. Her novels are light, sweet (but never saccharine*) and I find them soothing to read. Just what I needed that night, where I wound up staying up late to finish one of hers I hadn’t previously read. Thank goodness for a minimal commute to the Day Job (which involves wandering by the coffee pot for my first cup on my way to the weird setup in the living area**) and for the ready availability of ebooks.

I can remember getting in trouble when I was about ten, for reading with a flashlight under the covers. Not that I was up late reading. No, it was for wasting expensive batteries. Living in AK, with no electricity, and sharing a room with sisters, just turning on the light wasn’t an option. Dark was dark, and lighting a lamp or candle wasn’t lightly done either. These days, I snuggle under the blanket with my phone and read until I have calmed the raging monster of ‘what if…?’ and I can finally sleep again. Oddly, this doesn’t always work with fiction, which is why I haven’t been reading much at all. And it’s why the Stevenson books, or Patricia Wentworth, or their like, are what I’m coming back to. They are soothing, set in a world not my own, but also not one that sparks my own writing instinct to the fore. Hard to explain? The settings and people of Stevenson are almost fantasy to me, not in the sense of magic, but an unreality to my own experience. The past is a different world, someone once said, and it feels that way when I am reading tales of pre-War England.

I don’t think that I try to incorporate that sense of peace, of deep calm, into my own work. I am usually concerned with pacing – is it fast enough? Is there enough plot action? – but when I am reaching for a comfort read I’m looking for a book that doesn’t have a breathless break-neck pace. It makes me wonder how much of an audience there is for a soothing book. Not one where nothing happens. I find those boring. A book where I can feel rested and let the anxiety soak away like stepping into a hot bath.

*Saccharine books are, like the artificial sweetener, too sweet. Anyone who has tried a ‘diet’ substance and wondered at the peculiar flavor relative to sugar is familiar with the phenomenon. As a chemist, I can tell you that most of the sweeteners are a thousand times sweeter, perceptually, than sugar itself (also, there are a lot of different sugars, not just what we call sugar on the table, and they have differing perceptual levels of sweetness). As a writer, saccharine is when the book (or any entertainment) is faking it, trying to be something it isn’t. True sweetness feels like real people interacting, with human emotions, love, and trust.

** The current desk situation is that there isn’t one. I have a desk at the apartment still, but working from home with a retired husband means that our schedules are not always congruent. Which means that I’ve moved the big monitor, both laptops (work and art), and various small tables into the diminutive living area of the apartment and occupied it for the time being. Hopefully soon, we will have the office at Home whipped into shape, but unfortunately it’s the room that needs the most work to the walls, and TulKon interrupts our renovations this coming week.

And my laptop battery is dimming. See you in the comments!

14 comments

  1. Desk handling is always fun. When I moved the legs fell off of my big steel computer desk of doom, so I indeed up with a monitor on a card table for a while, or at least until I realized the monitor was slowly sinking into said card table.

    So I ran down to some hardware or office store (I think Home Depot?) end got a cheap plastic banquet table. (I like lots of desk space. Gammer/flight sim nut, so yeah… Peripherals.)

    I’ve been meaning to replace it with something actually a proper desk for years (it’s plastic, so years of leaning on it have made it rumply) but I just keep never getting around to it.

    And with everything gone remote, that’s where I’ve been working full time for the last two years too. Maybe I could get a nice table and write it off as a business expense? But then I’d still have to move everything off of the old desk, and set up the new one…

  2. I found Joyce Harmon’s Regency Mage series to be light enjoyable reading.

    Some may say that Mary Bennet in this series “isn’t” the character as she was shown in Pride and Prejudice, but I like her. 😀

  3. Ugh, Kuhn. No offense, but that brings back memories of a grad school class that was valuable in the long term, and painful in the short term. I know it’s not Kuhn’s fault that people took some of his ideas out of context, then launched them into pop-culture, but I still don’t care for him.

    1. Well, if you now happen to be close to Indianapolis, I can hook you up. I’ve got a few extra desks (plus tabletops with trestle legs in best IKEA fashion) occupying space in my garage.

  4. If you are looking for another author who uses a peaceful pace in his works, try Tony Hillerman. The settings are all in Indian reservations in the American southwest. Remarkably peaceful, since they are mostly murder mysteries, and you get a good dose of Hopi and Navajo culture to go with it.

    1. I love Tony Hillerman’s stories. I got my mother hooked on them as well. Weird thing is that my first introduction to them was having to read Dance Hall of the Dead for an Anthropology class my sophomore year.

  5. “… I had worked eight hours, trotted my happy little derriere off to work another three hours at the past-job-that-won’t-die, had made my daily art, even written a little, ”

    If no one has told you this recently, you are an impressive person and an inspiration.

    Also yes, to the soothing fiction. James Herriot, Don Camillo, stories with a deeo sense of place, and good, flawed human beings being themselves and rising above (or not). There is often a sense of amused affection for everyone in the tale, no matter how contentious.

    There’s a flavour of that in the graveyard and Tanager stories, which are my favourites of yours.

  6. Jan Karon’s Father Tim stories, set in Mitford, NC. They are what the English would call “Aga Sagas,” about small problems in a small place. He’s an Episcopal priest with some rather eccentric-in-a-southern-way parishioners, friends, opponents, and associates. They are quiet books, with gentle humor.

  7. I also used to read under the covers at night when I was a kid. After my Mom noticed the flashlight was missing, I switched to the glowing numbers on my digital clock. I think I ruined my eyes doing that as I had to get glasses the next year.

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