Books For All Occasions

by Mary Hrovat

My books are arranged more or less the way a library keeps its books, by subject and/or author, although I don’t use call numbers. I also have various piles of current and up-next and someday-soon reading. In addition, I have a loose set of idiosyncratic categories that guide my choice of what to read right now, out of several books I’m reading at any given time. I choose books for occasions the way more sociable people choose wines to complement their menus.

Books To Read With A Meal

I read while I’m eating, even though I’ve been told it’s a bad habit. I prefer not to read grisly books during a meal: no noir, nothing about the digestive system or skin diseases (eyeball diseases, brain diseases…really, nothing medical), no travel books of the sort where terrible accidents are likely. I think I tried to read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air with a meal and couldn’t.

It’s best if I read something that doesn’t make me cry while I’m eating, although that’s difficult these days because so many things make me cry. (My sister died this summer. Also…you know, everything.)

It’s even harder to tell when something you’re reading is going to make you laugh. I was reading a novel by Barbara Pym in a restaurant once and found something so hilarious that I had to set the book down and stop eating for several minutes while I laughed. Every time I thought I was finished laughing, I’d pick up the book, and there was the funny bit again to set me off. I can’t remember what was so funny, but I’m smiling as I type this. Thank you, Barbara Pym.

There are physical considerations as well. It’s important to read something that stays open easily when you’re eating. (I used to subscribe to The New Yorker, which was perfect for reading at the table. And if I dropped food on it, well, it was going to be recycled soon anyway.) That said, I’ll read a book that I own rather than a library book if a meal is going to be messy.

Big Books

There are two types of big books. One is the type you engross yourself in for pleasure, like going to visit another country while sitting on the couch. It’s the kind of book where you go in and close the door and ignore anyone who knocks. I tend to think of these as winter books, because I imagine winter as a shut-in, cozy, quiet season when I can disappear for long stretches of time into books like Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams or William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth. Winter is just as active and busy as the rest of the year, so I’m not sure it makes sense to call them winter books, but there it is.

The other type is a book with a lot to teach you, the kind of thing where you take notes and write down the titles of 10 or 20 other books, which you will almost certainly never read (but you never know! My most obvious manifestation of optimism is probably the fact that I have so many reading lists). In 2019, for example, I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Smile. I don’t seem to be doing as much of this kind of reading these days. I’m on the list for the library’s copy of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, so maybe I can get back into the habit.

One benefit of the big book is that it usually provides many pleasures along the way, anecdotes and facts within the larger narrative that surprise or entertain. It’s tempting to share these tidbits. When I was reading Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, I asked a friend, “Did you know Leland Stanford’s wife was murdered?” He not only knew about it but was able to refer me to a book about Jane Stanford’s death. (I don’t always choose my books wisely, but I’ve been fortunate in my choice of friends.)

It’s usually better if I don’t try to read two big books at once, but there are magical times when I’m reading two of them that seem to be talking to each other. I wish I knew how to make that happen more often.

Books For Reading On The Plane

Sometimes a big book is just the thing for the long stretches of waiting that are part of air travel. If you’re packing physical books, it can be good to have just one of them, and unless you’re doing the Grand Tour, you’re not likely to finish it halfway through the trip (although you may lose interest or need a break). On a trip in 2001, I had already read one of my airplane books—a fun novel by Connie Willis—on the ground before my flight left Indianapolis, and I read most of another on the flight to Pittsburgh; I was ultimately heading to Phoenix, and the weather was bad, so I still had a lot of waiting ahead of me.

But there’s a reason I chose fun novels, and these days you can put as many books as you want on your phone or tablet, so you might as well load up a variety of things. One unpleasant evening at JFK, on my return to the US from Paris, I read my way through two or three of the Anne of Avonlea books on a Sony Reader while I waited for a flight home. I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast on the flight from Paris; I’d bought it in a bookstore on Rue de Rivoli so I could take that little bit of Paris back with me, and so I could read it on the plane.

I take an antihistamine for motion sickness, and it makes me drowsy. Consequently, I’ve learned to avoid certain types of books on airplanes, unless I can read them purely for the experience of it and not expect to retain much. I’m talking about not only abstract or subtle books on unfamiliar concepts, but, for example, science fiction novels involving time travel.

I once read a book involving not only time travel but also ancient Egypt. If I’m remembering this correctly (which is doubtful), each character had multiple parts according to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, and some of these parts could time-travel separately. So not only were the characters spread out in time and place across the novel, but each character’s ba and ka could also be located in different times and places in any given chapter. That’s pretty much all I remember of the book, but at least I wasn’t airsick.

Books For When You’re Sick

Whatever you can manage. In old novels when someone has a long illness, there are several anxious feverish days and then a long lovely period of convalescence during which meals and books are brought to the bedside. I tend to imagine being sick as a chance to do some uninterrupted reading, although by now I should know better.

Once, when I was recovering from food poisoning, all I could read was Far Side cartoons, and not too many of those. After a while, I moved on to Calvin and Hobbes, which has multiple panels. Just before I got sick, I’d started a murder mystery that began with the discovery of two severed hands in a small boat. (I hope none of you are reading this while you eat.) I’d had horrible fever dreams about those hands, and I’m not sure whether I finished the book once I graduated from Calvin and Hobbes.

Books For The Bath

I take baths in part to relax, and I tend to like reading fiction in the bath, or humor. Humorous fiction is better yet. Another incident of uncontrollable laughter occurred in a bathtub when I read of Macon Leary’s ridiculous accident in his basement, in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. One summer, when I lived in a house with no air conditioning, I read my way through much of Michael Crichton’s work while I was sitting in a cool bath (not continuously, mind you).

Unless you have a very secure shelf on which you can rest a book while you read in the tub, it’s best to stick to books that are light enough to hold comfortably. I’ve read library books in the bath, but as a rule I’d say it’s safer to stick to your own. About 40 years ago, I dropped a paperback copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in the bath. My mother had just sent it to me for my birthday, and I felt terrible about treating it so badly. I don’t remember exactly what I did to help it recover—gentle drying, I suppose, and a period of rehabilitation under a stack of heavy books. Today it doesn’t look all that different from some of my other well-loved 40-year-old books. Still, I can’t recommend bathing your books.

Books For Late At Night

Poetry. Travel books full of photographs. The deepest of deep history, books about ancient rocks or ancient starlight or past and future Earths. Late night is a time to sail out of sight of the shore. (Although poetry is suitable for reading at any time. I don’t know why I so often leave it as a treat for the end of the day.)

Books For Times Of Loss

Whatever works. Old favorites, or things that make you cry or laugh, depending on which you need at the moment. One of Anne Tyler’s characters read the dictionary after her husband died, because the entries were short enough to match her attention span. (Also, this character said, “The information was so definite.”) Since my sister died, I’ve been revisiting childhood favorites and reading memoirs and novels about loss. I’ve also been going through a lot of undemanding mystery novels and historical romances. There are days I don’t read at all. Whatever works.


Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay


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