BOOKS THAT HOLD YOUR HAND by Tania Unsworth
In the days following my father’s death two years ago, the only thing that gave me any respite from grief was reading. I had recently bought the first volume of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. I’d always been a fan of graphic novels and comics in general, although it was only an intermittent interest. But now it seemed I could read nothing else. I quickly finished that first volume and went to my local comic book store to buy the second and the third. By the end of the week, there were fourteen in the series piled up on my coffee table.
For anyone who hasn’t read Kirkman’s work (on which the TV series The Walking Dead is based), I must tell you that his long, starkly illustrated tale of a world overrun by terrifying zombies – and the far more terrifying human beings that survive – is not for the faint of heart. It’s not even for anyone with more than a passing interest in keeping down their lunch. The books are a lot more twisted and violent than the TV show (although also in my opinion, more profound and interesting) and they are among the few things that I would not want my children to read.
But in my bereavement, they provided a strange comfort.
Perhaps it was simply that they were powerful and disturbing enough to distract me from my unhappiness. Or maybe I found a match between their vision of a world thrown into chaos and my own personal turmoil that felt briefly like solace. I’ve not looked at them since that time and not felt the desire to buy any of the installments in the series that have been published since then. But it started me thinking about what books and texts we turn to in times of stress or sadness, or simple uncertainty.
When I was a kid, I read books that were advanced for my age, but I also read books aimed at much younger children. It wasn’t just that I enjoyed returning to my old favorites; a new layer of understanding emerging as each year passed. I also read them for comfort, a way to remind myself whenever getting older felt frightening or overwhelming, that I could always go back to the reassuring territory of Moominvalley or Narnia or the secret tunnels of Fantastic Mr. Fox.
As a teen, faced with a combination of faltering grades and troubles within my family, I went through a phase of cutting school. It was a pretty feeble sort of rebellion; I never did anything but hang out in the town center library. There, day after day, I wallowed in the guilty pleasure of trashy romance novels, their covers always featuring women with wind-swept hair and low-cut gowns and universally square-jawed, brooding men. I knew they were (mostly) silly and formulaic and I would have been mortified to have been caught reading them (it would have embarrassed me far more than the fact that I was skipping school). But at the time they felt like what I needed. They filled an empty space in a way I couldn’t explain.
Sometimes, when we turn to certain books in times of desperation, I think it might be for the same reason that pregnant women often crave an odd or uncharacteristic item of food; because we unconsciously sense the need for some missing, essential nutrient.
It’s not always obvious what that nutrient might be. Not long ago, during a particularly low phase with my writing (one of those times when you wonder why you ever thought you could write a shopping list, let alone a whole book), I found myself re-reading all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Aubrey/Maturin novels so compulsively that I finished them within a few weeks. I have no idea why I found such comfort in reading about adventures at sea during the Napoleonic Wars, but I did.
More recently, thinking ahead to my next writing project and half terrified by the thought that I will never have another good idea again as long as I live, I find myself unable to read anything except fairy tales. I’m working my way steadily through the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and assorted folk tales from around the world. This obsession is perhaps easier to understand. Using a minimum of words and even fewer explanations, fairy tales are story telling at its most basic and fundamental. I may not find my next great idea, but it helps to feel the old, reassuringly solid shape of those building blocks.
It seems I have reading material for every crisis, great or small. There are the books I pick up when I can’t sleep and am filled with the kind of grim thoughts that you only get at 3am. And the stories I crave when homesickness strikes (I’m from the UK). And the poetry I read aloud to myself whenever a particular kind of melancholy takes hold….
I could go on (I’m a gloomy sort and the list is long) but I’m curious about other people’s lists. What books do you turn to when facing an ordeal, or dealing with sorrow, or simply trying to get through the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life? My guess is that they are somewhat unpredictable choices, quirky, a little foolish perhaps or maybe just the opposite. I feel sure some are stories that you’ve loved forever while others are strangers that you only met by chance.
Whatever they are, I know they are deeply personal. And while some you may never read again, others will be companions for life.
When you feel most alone, what are the books that hold your hand?