Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.
–Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979: 204).
I haven’t been reading very rapidly this year, and especially these last couple of months. So I thought I’d make a virtue of necessity, and talk about the books I read again and again, for comfort, and why; and the books that stay with me for years. The books that, for lack of a better word, sustain me.
It might be odd to talk about books as though they were sustenance and air, as though they gave the comfort of religion or friendship. But in a way they are: they’re the sustenance of dreams. And they do: they can lift us up when life casts us down. These last couple of years have seen a few new trusted friends added to the comfort-reading pile, while some others have had to be moved sideways into the “reread only seldom” pile—I don’t find the same pleasure in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books as once I did, for example, but time marches on and we all change with it, don’t we?
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls have been staples of my comfort reading since the very first time I read them. More of Bujold’s work used to be, but I find myself going back to her Miles Vorkosigan novels, Komarr aside, less and less often than I used to. There is something ineffably hopeful about Caz and Ista, in their respective books: a sense that despite their griefs and scars, joy can win through, or hope and grace. I have to ration my rereading of those novels, lest I come to memorise whole paragraphs and one day fail to be taken aback by their power and force.
I can already tell I’m going to have to ration rereads of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor the same way. It has some of the same quality of hope, the same generosity of spirit, the same sense of grace—albeit in a far more secular way. The Goblin Emperor‘s Maia is engaged in trying to make his world a better place, and invested in not perpetuating the cruelty that was done to him: not passing it on to anyone else. In many ways—and I know I’ve said this before—it’s a very kind book. Forgiving: not necessarily to its characters, but to its readers.
I think we need kind books. Forgiving ones. Even gentle ones. Like Jo Walton’s The Just City, which is forgiving in its own way, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, which should not strike me as gentle and yet do: they sustained me over last winter and this spring, by providing an escape into worlds where, however flawed and uncertain, people tried to do the right thing. Rereading a familiar book is like revisiting that first great escape, that sense of liberation, without any of the apprehension that can attend on reading a novel for the first time. (Will it be any good? Will I like it? Will terrible things befall these characters I’ve come to care about? With a reread, all these questions are already answered.)
And sometimes we need liberation and kindness: the freedom to imagine other worlds and other ways of being in the world. Some days we need gentleness to invite us to cast off our mental chains and visit somewhere else, for a while.
And sometimes we need a sharp discomforting rasp. But for those times I have Nicola Griffith’s Stay and Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing and Elizabeth Bear’s Hell and Earth and A Companion to Wolves. And more often, when I’m moved to reread something that isn’t formulaic, I want the escape of kindness.
What old favourites sustain you in hard spots, and why?