The Bloggess brings up an interesting question about comfort books — those books you read multiple times, because they inexplicably make you feel good.
I was just talking with Victor about comfort books…those books that you read over and over because you find them comforting even if you don’t understand why. He thinks I’m insane and possibly I am, but there are certain books I turn to when my head is in a weird place and I need to go somewhere I’ve been before and relax. I’d tried to explain it to him and he almost understood until I started listing a few and then I realized that most of my comfort books are full of murder and angst and bizarreness and are not really what anyone in the world would consider to be a happy or relaxing read. Books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Geek Love and From the Dust Returned and The Stranger. Worn copies of Bloody Business and Stiff and The 3 Faces of Eve and Alice in Wonderland and pretty much any of the Sookie Stackhouse series. Books that may not make it on my top ten list, but that I compulsively read again and again.
I thought about it, and I mostly lack anything like that — I like newness, so I keep digging up new authors and new stories, and I don’t do much re-reading. But there’s one exception, one book that I dredge up every few years to re-read. It’s probably one you never heard of.
It’s The Far Arena, by Richard Ben Sapir. I nicked it off my father’s bookshelf way, way back in the previous millennium, and I’ve kept the ragged paperback around ever since, because it was out of print otherwise (although now, finally, it’s back, and you can even get it on your kindle!)
It’s a strange story, which sounds like it ought to be a sensationalist action-adventure. An oil company drilling through a glacier cores through the thigh of frozen human being, and they dig him up and thaw him out, and miraculously, he lives (there is a huge leap in believability you have to make in the science, but once you get past that, it’s OK). As it turns out, he’s a Roman gladiator.
This could be an opportunity for some real cheese, but no — it turns into this very thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human, and the meaning of mortality, and also an interesting character study. The story revolves around multiple people: the gladiator himself, the nun brought in as a Latin translator, the corporate flunky who’s trying to protect the oil company interests, and a Russian socialist who keeps trying to inject ideology into everything. And they’re all treated sympathetically! There aren’t any bad guys at all in the story, but there’s still conflict between all these well-meaning people.
And no, it’s not about gory swordfights. There is one sword fight in contemporary times (and a few others in flashbacks to the arena), when doubters test him in a duel with a fencer to see if this little Latin-babbling guy could possibly have been a professional gladiator…and it’s treated as a horror rather than a glorious moment. Don’t bother with it if you want something like that awful Spartacus series on Starz.
I think I re-read it because it’s such a sensitive exploration of time and loss and memory. While the idea of having a conversation with a person from the distant past is a common idea of time-travel stories, in this one we have our time-traveler gradually becoming aware that everything and everyone he loved is long gone, forgotten dust.
I guess that says something about me, that the obscure book I look upon most fondly is all about time and death.
Now your turn. Confess. What book have you read a half-dozen or more times?