The publishing world is full of the new, the exciting and the trending, but there are times when what I want is the old, the familiar and the reliable, for a bit of comfort reading. As it happens, life has been a bit up and down since last November and at that time a reading group I was trying to join was about to start “Shards of Honor” by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Me, my crazy schedule and a reading group – that was doomed to failure because they’ve moved on to the next book before I’m ready. However, “Shards” wasn’t a new book, but one I’ve read before, more than once. A perfect piece of comfort reading at a time when I really needed it. Of course, “Shards” is effectively the prequel or scene-setter for Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga which offered enough comfort reading to take me all the way through into December.
Part of the joy of re-reading the familiar is just that – the familiarity, a quiet evening, or even a loud one, with old friends, rehashing fondly known things. The other part, however, is finding something new, a detail previously missed, or a new sub-text that had stayed hidden all these years. With a series like Vorkosigan, which I first started reading when it originally came out, I tended to re-read the whole series as each new book was published, so the comfort and familiarity were fresh, like re-settling into a hot bath that has barely had time to cool. Even so, I found the new, the hidden, the sub-texts that hadn’t caught my attention before. Perhaps most interesting of all was consciously noticing for the first time that over the series, each book is different from the last and not a set formula hashed out over and over. I’m sure I noticed it subconsciously before, because otherwise I doubt that I would have returned to those books so often had they been a sequence of cookie-cutter outings, but actually seeing that clearly for the first time was a delight.
All told, Ms Bujold and her Vorkosigans made for a very satisfying wallow in comfort.
In January I needed more comfort reading. I could have reached for another firm favourite, a shelf full of Terry Pratchett, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood. But over there, almost forgotten and certainly gathering dust, Julian May. I first read the Saga of the Exiles as a student, back when they first came out. In fact, I first read, re-read, and then re-read over and again when it first came out, but I couldn’t tell you when I last read it. At least a decade ago, perhaps two.
My ageing paperbacks are so old that the glue holding the spine together has gone brittle, so the first step in my comfort reading was the slow and frustrating task of putting those old books back together again. It might have been easier to buy new copies, but somehow that feels like defeating the purpose. This comfort reading is not just about the reading, but in this case holding the same physical book I owned as a student, picturing the digs, the old comfy chair where I also devoured the likes of Tolkien, Donaldson and Le Guin thirty years ago. Not just comfort reading, but a tactile wallowing in my past.
This comfort reading is going slowly, with so many other demands on my time, and I’ve reached the third volume after fourth months, but the whole point here is comfort over speed. A gentle process of getting reacquainted with an old friend, out of my life for twenty years. I’m finding the writing a little stilted in places, a sign of changing styles and expectations, but the story holds up and I find myself intrigued by my own false memories of the saga. If asked, I would have said it was a blow-by-blow story, picking over the days of the struggle one by one, but that is just an illusion created by Julian May as the tale skips days, weeks, even months as needed, with no more than a sentence or a paragraph to deftly fill in the space. As a reader, it’s a pleasure, and as a writer, an education.
Julian May will keep me in comfort for a while to come and then I shall have to decide – more comfort, or pick over the pile for something new.
There’s no shortage of old favourites on the shelf.
About the Author - Mark Huntley-James
Mark Huntley-James writes fantasy, science-fiction or any other weird thing that catches his attention. He has published three humorous urban fantasy novels, won the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2013, and has various short and flash fiction in anthologies, on his blog (https://markhuntleyjames.
Mark lives in Cornwall, UK, on a small farm with his partner, multiple cats, a dangerous horde of psycho-chickens, and a flock of rare-breed sheep. Sometimes he writes about the animals, but can’t get any of them to read the stories.