Reading for Fun: Books I Read Over and Over

Lord of the RingsThere are lots of reasons to read: to be challenged by ideas, to learn something new, to take pleasure in beautiful word use. But in a world of horrific headlines and daily stresses, there’s one other important reason to read: relaxation.

Sometimes it’s just nice to take a vacation in someone else’s reality. I call this comfort reading. And when you’re looking for comfort, the best choice is a known quantity. That’s why series mystery novels are a particularly good source of comfort reading.

But when I really want to escape reality, I go for books I’ve already read, usually multiple times. For example, back when I was in law school, I re-read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy every semester during finals. I picked it up ostensibly because I could put it down, and I rarely began at the beginning, but by the end of finals I would have finished the entire trilogy.

My law school grades were so-so, but oh, the thesis I could have written on Tolkien.

Lately, I realized that I’ve been re-reading the same three books on a very regular basis. I find them over and over beside my bed or in the bathroom — those being the best locations for comfort reading. They’re all books with rich complex plots and fine writing, but for me they’re comfort reading because I know them all so well that I can open to a favored scene with a minimum of page shuffling.

As someone who can’t read romance novels, I was a tad surprised to realize that all of them have a love story at their heart. And in looking up covers to illustrate this blog post, I was even more surprised to find that they’re all now being published as YA. If you can draw conclusions about me based on that, don’t.

Anyway, here they are:

To Say Nothing of the DogConnie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog

This is romantic comedy with time travel. It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. It’s good science fiction — the time travel has interesting rules and it’s set in a richly developed future world. And it won the Hugo.

I can’t quite tell you why I love it so much. Perhaps because it makes so much fun of the Victorians. Perhaps because I’m rooting for the main characters. It might even be the dog, to say nothing of the cat. But mostly I think it’s just because Willis did such a lovely job of constructing the story.

Among the things I find most fascinating is that Willis used the same world to write The Doomsday Book (which won the Nebula as well as the Hugo), a book that isn’t funny at all. I think it’s wonderful that she can see both the humor and the tragedy in her world, and provide us with both. (She has also used it in her two latest books, Blackout and All Clear, which tell the story of World War II in Britain from the perspective of historians sent back in time.)

Tam LinPamela Dean’s Tam Lin

This is fantasy, not SF: a retelling of the Tam Lin story set in a liberal arts college in Minnesota in the early 1970s. It was part of series Terri Windling put together of retellings of fairy tales.

I do know why I love this so much: It’s the college setting. There may be a love story here, but most of my favorite bits are when Janet Carter and her roommates are sitting around talking with their mildly strange young men and other college friends, quoting bits of Shakespeare and bringing Aristophanes and Keats into the discussion. Every time I read it I want to go back to school.

The Outlaws of SherwoodRobin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood

This is neither SF nor fantasy, but a retelling of one of the great English adventure stories: Robin Hood. And it is by and away my favorite Robin Hood — just romantic enough to make him a real hero and with a strong and determined Marian as well.

McKinley says in her afterword that authors tend to view Robin through their own times, which is why Marian has such a strong and prominent role, and why she isn’t the only woman among Robin’s “Merry Men.” Her Robin and his cohorts are all very young as well, which has influenced my view of the story for all time. I could not bring myself to see the recent film with Russell Crowe as Robin, because he’s just too old for the role.

Of the three, I think this is the only one that was first published as YA. McKinley is known for her excellent adventure books aimed at young adults, though I’ve enjoyed all of them as a so-called grown-up.

OK. Those are my favorite books to re-read, at least at the moment. (At another time I might have listed a lot of Dorothy Sayers and Raymond Chandler.) What are yours?

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Breaking WavesMy story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

You can also read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic.

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Reading for Fun: Books I Read Over and Over — 11 Comments

  1. I was never able to get through The Outlaws of Sherwood–it just didn’t take–but I adore The Blue Sword and the prequel.

    I’ve got a revolving list of comfort books. Jane Austen is at the top. Anything, even the Letters. Then there are Chesterfield’s Letters, and Horry Walpole’s are right up there with them. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin tales as well.

  2. Nice to know others agree with me. Sherwood, I also love The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, but somehow I haven’t been drawn to re-reading them as much as I have Outlaws. And while I think Jane Austen was a brilliant writer, I do not find her work comforting. I get so angry about the restricted choices of women in her time that I want to throw things. Or start revolutions. I have to be already in a calm frame of mind to read Austen!

  3. I bounced off TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG in the past, but obviously have to try it again. In addition to all the usual suspects (Austen, Sayers) I will add THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins — the ultimate Victorian thriller! and the works of Mary Renault.

  4. Jane Eyre is my no. 1 indispensable re-read–every time I read it I see new things. Austen and Sayers, of course. For flat-out-comfort-reading Dick Francis–who wrote something like 40 books, so I can rotate among them. Tam Lin (and yes, the best part is everyone sitting around talking and loving being in school) is also on my list. And a book called Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford, which I frequently refer to as The Book That Saved My Life: howlingly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

  5. Uh oh, guess I’m going to have to confess to the fact that my comfort reading leans toward the space operas I read as a child and their modern counterparts. While I do return to Virginia Wolf and Katherine Mansfield for the shock of recognition I get when I immerse myself in their families, I also reread Heinlein’s juveniles. Tunnel in the Sky and Space Cadet are favorites. I turn off my sexism meter when I re-enter his worlds, forget the present and slide into the comfort of pure escapism. More recent comforts include Elizabeth Moon’s Once A Hero and Tanya Huff’s Torin Kerr novels. What’s truly hilarious is that I’m a peace and love kinda gal, reading military science fiction.

    Nancy, I also agree with you on the joy of a known book. These days my bedtime reading is almost always something I’ve read before.

  6. It is so interesting to see some books showing up again and again. I lost track of how many times I have read LotR — stopped counting at 30 — but I always notice something new in it. I have gone through Austen periods, Sayers periods, funny mysteries (Charlotte MacLeod, Donna Andrews, Janet Evanovich) or funny romances (Jennifer Crusie’s BET ME is a big humor comfort book). Other fantasies and SF have been on the list at times — McCaffrey, Miller & Lee, Dean, Wrede, Sherwood Smith’s CROWN DUEL/COURT DUEL, McKinley’s BLUE SWORD and HERO & THE CROWN (I am another one who could not get through OUTLAWS OF SHERWOOD — but I promise to give it another try, I still have it) and lately Tamora Pierce’s WILD MAGIC. Emma Bull’s WAR FOR THE OAKS rotates through.

    I also have been known to read my own novels as comfort novels. Maybe no one else does that? But I don’t write anything I wouldn’t read!

    Time to read the stack of Connie Willis I’ve acquired but not read….

  7. I don’t know that I read my own stuff for comfort reading, but I definitely read it. Sometimes if feels like I’m reading something by another person, especially when I find I really like something, but can’t remember exactly how I pulled it off!

    I like military SF, too, Diane (and here I’ve been off talking about the peace and harmony side of Aikido). I particularly like John Hemry’s Stark’s War series.

    Nice to see so many others like Tam Lin.

    Kathi, if you’re looking for comfort reading in Connie Willis, make sure you go for the funny ones. I liked Doomsday Book a lot, but it’s not a comforting story.

  8. Terry Pratchett cures all ills; Vimes is my go-to comfort reading when the world isn’t working right, because he’s guaranteed to be worse off. Ted Hughes and TS Eliot are my poets, but I do go through my Austen phases. “Tolstoy Lied” by Rachel Kadish makes me quite happy, with all its romance and Literature Academia. And of course, Harry Potter brings me back to my childhood, both recent and not-so-recent.

  9. I have different books/series I read for different reasons. I have read the entire Pern series by McCaffrey at least 10 times, and some of the individual titles 15-20 times. I also love going back to Patrica Brigg’s duologies and Tamora Pierce’s books for the wonderful characters. Eddings is what I read when I’m sick and want something to entertain me without stressing my brain. Moon’s Once a Hero series for whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed or need my courage stoked, but the Deed of Paksenarrian for when I need additional moral courage or need to see/believe people can grow and change. The only non SFF I read regularly is Anne of Green Gables. Whenever I notice I’ve been too sad, negative or pessimistic lately (especially if there’s no reason for it), I start reading about my favorite redhead and soon life is sunny and the fairies have reappeared.

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