The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

4 comments on “The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

  1. Anandeep Pannu says:

    I totally understand this – my father was a voracious reader. Military history and aviation of course were of large part of his library that we had to cart around from base to base. Coincidentally like you he read a lot of philosophy as well.

    The books we had and he would get from the various unit libraries included Neville Duke’s “Test Pilot” Larry Forresters “Reach for the Sky” & “fly for your life”, Ernest Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter”.

    One article that he would mention is about the perfect aviation school that he had read in a magazine in the 60s. Turned out it was Richard Bach’s earliest writing for Flying magazine entitled “School for Perfection”.

    Incidentally Mike Lithgow died in the crash of a BAC 1-11 – I knew this first because Dad told me about “deep stall” and mentioned the accident!

    For me this is certainly comfort reading – I now have a collection of over 2000 aviation books and magazines that includes the ones you mention.

    Anandeep

  2. ashokbhatia says:

    Yes, and what could be more comforting than a worn out book which connects us back to our departed parents! My father introduced me to several authors and it is a bond which subsists.

  3. CK Sharma says:

    Ah yes! Good ol’ ‘PC Sir’! I remember him — as well as your Mom! — only too well from our days in Bareilly! Best . . . .

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