I’ve never been the type of reader who is done with a book as soon as it’s finished. I devour a book, and then if it proves to be a friend, it will be read again and again over several years. The first dozen times, I will notice things that I hadn’t noticed in previous readings. Eventually, it will become so familiar that the comfort becomes finding the same things right where they are supposed to be (Which to be truthful, is the only thing in my life like that, so I can’t overemphasize the actual amount of comfort that can bring. At least in the midst of chaos, I can escape into an orderly world for a little while).
Sometimes good books come back off the shelf because I am subconsciously trying to process something — Anna Karenina was read and re-read as I was getting used to being a wife and again when I was becoming a mother — not so much the parts about Anna and Vronsky, but the relationship of Levin and Kitty draws me. Since I’ve been in Papua New Guinea, I find that I am once again attracted to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s West with The Night.. Africa and Papua new Guinea are plenty different, but there are similarities, too. We are at the same altitude and nearly the same latitude as Blixen’s Ngong Hills, we just get a lot more rain in Enga. The way she describes the air and the atmosphere is achingly familiar. At times when people are telling me of their leg aches or I am trying to comprehend situations that don’t quite click, I almost feel like I am channeling Karen. “Come to my house, I have medicine.” I have said. After feeling this a few times, I pulled Out of Africa off the shelf and began reading. The expectation of a new life, processing a fairly similar culture — the first time we heard about the PNG concept of compensation as a form of justice, I already knew it – Karen had told me about it. Karen Blixen even describes the sensation happening to her that I am describing — that Africa has a way of making you feel like you are living something out of a book you have been reading.
The Harry Potter series is also a soothing friend. In the brain fog of Winter in the Midwest, my mind cannot grasp new ideas, and it seems our entire family entrenches themselves in our worn set of seven — different volumes spread out all over the house, each of us picking up whichever is nearest and leaving it behind for everyone else as we sleepwalk about the house and wait for sunshine and warmth. The Horatio Hornblower series serves the same role, as does Narnia. Just as Spring is about to burst through, the males in the family shake the cobwebs from their brains by immersing themselves in Lord of the Rings and discussions start to take on a more animated turn just before the daffodils break through.
But my dear, true friend is the true friend of most women, for some reason — Pride and Prejudice. When I was in my teens, it hadn’t occurred to me that her books were Jane Austen’s way of communicating her very solid ideas on how to pick a good husband or wife. I simply enjoyed the story over and over while soaking all of that in, too. It is also a book about basics — basic good people — good-natured, clever, virtuous; and basic bad people — self-centered and vain, self-centered and un-self-aware, self-centered and grating, and self-centered and downright evil. But the basic component to the bad was self-centered. The good people could be self-centered, too, but something brought them to repent of it. Jane Bennett was all-goodness because even at the start, she was not self-centered. Elizabeth is more what most of us hope we are — she doesn’t particularly excel at anything but people just like her company because she’s clever and funny. She’s only mildly flawed — she wants to believe the best of the people she likes, and the worst of the people she doesn’t. Her hardships are mostly not her own doing, but a few of them are (like believing the best of the people she likes, and the worst of the people she doesn’t). But she figures it all out in the end and things turn out okay. As involved as the plot is, Pride and Prejudice pretty much mirrors life, shows us our own flaws, but there’s a happy ever after. I don’t need to be enamored of Mr. Darcy — he’s a little too much work for me, but I can be happy for Elizabeth and I always close the book feeling content but not ecstatic – but it made me think and I came away a little better for it. Exactly how I like to feel when hanging out with a friend.