Comfort Reads and Guilty Pleasures

Reading is an interesting human activity.

It does not appear to be something that our brains have evolved for naturally, unlike various activities that involve seeing, muscle coordination, etc. It is not a skill that an infant can observe in a parent and pick up substantially, like speech.

Rather, it is a skill that humans need to learn. Most humans require substantial teaching effort and practice to attain an adequate, adult level accomplishment in reading.

Although this is hard to believe, I have learned that there are adults who exist and work in our basically literate society, but who have never learned to read.

I heard from from a friend who told me, when the subject of literacy came up, that they had encountered the issue in the workplace. Apparently, there were people who had been hired and had been working but who had never learned to read. I can see this as being possible in some job classifications, that were more hands-on and less knowledge-worker. It was only when failure to perform certain duties or take required actions that had been communicated to them in writing had led them to the brink of serious disciplinary actions or termination that they admitted that they actually could not read.

I can see this. On a personal level, I was not reading at grade level or particularly functional manner until age 9. Apparently, I had some kind of learning disability or problem with how I was attempting to read. No one alive remembers what it was.

However, that summer my much loved paternal grandmother and librarian Ellen (Rogers) Hook and a teacher friend of her took several months of working with me to address the issue. Once the dam broke on really learning to read, you could not stop me. I remain eternally thankful to her for this and everything else.

In hindsight, I don’t know exactly what my grandmother thought about speculative fiction. However, I do remember her offering to take me to visit a famous science fiction author who lived nearby her in the Ojai valley sometime in my childhood, so she was clearly paying attention and knew I was interested in SF. I wish I remembered who it was or if we went to see them or not.

Both the level of difficulty and level of interest in reading vary dramatically among us. Discounting those who never learn how to read as noted above, there is a real spectrum of interest in reading, from those that read adequately but are just not interested in it to those who read insatiably.

Many of us, myself included, see reading as both a required skill to acquire work or career knowledge and an entertainment or personal improvement activity that we do for enjoyment. My default hobby or pleasure activity is reading, encompassing a wide range of printed material including non-fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fiction.

When I read fiction, most of the time I am reading works that are new to me that I hope will be interesting, that I will enjoy reading and that will challenge me, with characters and plots that will enthrall me while exposing me to things that I really need to think about. I read written works so that I can vote on the Hugo Awards, and so that I can have conversations with other speculative fiction aficionados about them. I anticipate that reading some of these things will be potentially difficult and possibly unpleasant, even for my pleasure reading.

For those of you familiar with speculative fiction, Gene Wolfe is an interesting author. He was a great writer, perhaps one of the greatest writers in speculative fiction in the last 40 years. He wrote stories and books that I just love, and that I think are arguably classics of speculative fiction. Among my favorites for his short fiction are (presented in no special order):

  • “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, 1970, Orbit 7 (Damon Knight editor).
  • “Seven American Nights”, 1978 novella, Orbit 20
  • “No Planets Strike”, a 1997 short story, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
  • “Useful Phrases”, a 1993 short story, Tomorrow Speculative Fiction.
  • “The Lost Pilgrim”, a 2004 novelette, from “Innocents Abroad: New Fantasy Stories”.
  • “Against the Lafayette Escadrille”, a 1972 short story, from “Again, Dangerous Visions”, Harlan Ellison editor.
  • “War Beneath The Tree”, a 1979 short story, Omni.
  • “Counting Cats in Zanzibar”, a 1996 short story, Asimov’s Science Fiction
  • “Petting Zoo”, a 1997 short story, from “Return of the Dinosaurs”, , edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Mike Resnick.
  • “Dormanna”, a 2012 short story, from “The Palancar Project”, David G. Hartwell editor.
  • “The Eyeflash Miracles”, a 1976 novella, from “Future Power, Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois editors.
  • “V. R. T.”, a 1972 novella from “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”.

At the same time, his works are often very challenging and sometimes take repeated readings for me to have a clue what is going on. Examples of this include:

  • “The Ziggurat”, a 1995 novella, from “Full Spectrum Five”, edited by Tom Dupree, Jennifer Hershey, Janna Silverstein.
  • “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, a 1972 novella, from “Orbit 10”, Damon Knight editor

I know people who think these two works are great classics, people with substantial expertise and knowledge of the field of speculative fiction, and they may be right. I am not really a fan of this kind of complexity and hard to follow and understand narrative. It’s also possible that Wolfe was just a lot smarter than I am, and that I really should have been able to figure out much of his work without that level of challenge. Some of his work verges on the post-modern, and he is definitely a fan of writing fiction with unreliable narrators and very, very opaque stories. Not all of his fiction was like that, but it was clearly something that he really liked doing.

Looking backwards at my life and thinking of my reading habits and behaviors, two major categories for my reading have been:

  • Pleasure reading.
  • Work or task related reading, where I need knowledge that is best found in a written work.

However, after thinking about it, I have two more occasionally overlapping categories of reading:

  • Comfort reading.
  • Guilty pleasures reading.

Comfort reads, for me, are reading a book or story that you have read before, enjoyed, and that has a known and not really challenging outcome. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy or mental readiness for the real or potential challenges of an unknown written work.

Sometimes I just need to read a book or story that is a pleasurable known quantity to me, that I love, will enjoy, and know that I won’t be challenged by especially. One of my favorites in this category is “The Witches of Karres” by James H. Schmitz. For me, it hits all of the categories of being fun, enjoyable, good characters, and known outcome. Another comfort read for me is the “Amber” series by Roger Zelazny.

Your comfort reads might be considerably different. Here are some examples. Bookriot noted several comforting speculative fiction books reads, including:

  • “The Martian” by Andy Weir
  • “A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers
  • “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik
  • “The Second Mango” by Shira Glassman (a fantasy I have not read but it looks worth checking out)

Off The Shelf has “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien, which is a great choice.

We Are Bookish (presented by Netgallery) has some great comfort reads shared by authors, including speculative fiction:

  • “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  • “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers
  • “The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1 by Diana Wynne Jones”
  • “Magic for Liars” by Sarah Gailey
  • “The Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean Auel
  • “The Lives of Christopher Chant” by Diana Wynne Jones

An occasionally overlapping category of reading for me is “guilty pleasures reading”. Guilty pleasures for me are books that I like or love and continue to revisit but that I am embarrassed about. These are often but not always books that I loved when I read them decades ago when I was a much younger person and perhaps a teenager, presumably able to skip past uncomfortable or objectionable material or just ignore parts of a book.

For me, the “Lensman” series by E. E. “Doc” Smith is definitely a “guilty pleasure” read. It’s still a slam-bang space opera adventure series with a very clear and unnuanced battle of good versus evil. At the same time, it’s definitely a product of it’s time, originally appearing between 1937 to 1948. There are alien and female characters with agency. However, I am sure that a careful analysis of the work might reveal all kinds of objectionable elements. I have decided to not delve into any of that personally, just so I can continue to occasionally read this series that is both a “comfort read” and a “guilty pleasure” for me.

There was a very interesting reddit thread on “guilty pleasure SF reads“. An obvious mention was the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Mars” books. The books mentioned there may be more controversial than “comfort reads”, as identifying something as a “guilty pleasure” does call out that we are embarrassed about it, perhaps for very good reason.

Your comfort reads and guilty pleasures reads will doubtlessly be different than mine.

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