In the same way that there is a Meat Loaf song for every occasion, there is a book for every mood. I read to medicate my soul. Books are comforting and familiar, they don’t look at you in disgust if you haven’t showered, they don’t run away and they don’t talk back. Neither does a well-trained dog, but since I rent and I’m not allowed pets, books will have to do.
When I’m really feeling lost and out of touch with myself, I read Gemmell. Echoes of the Great Song or Winter Warriors usually. The stories are classic good-vs-evil, heroes-of-the-golden-age adventures and the derring-do of the main protagonists inspires me to take action in my own life. Gemmell anchors me to my late teens and a particular band of friends where I feel safe, and loved, and like people believe in me.
If I’m feeling sad, I find Pratchett. I need cheering up, but in a dry, dark way, and something like Jingo or Men at Arms does that. You know when you’re outside your own body, watching yourself lying on your bed listening to REM and feeling all Young Emo of the Year 2013, and you know how useless you’re being but you can’t snap yourself out of it? When you even sarcastically congratulate yourself on how productive you’re being in the hopes of angering your way out of a slump? That’s when I read Pratchett. Humour and satire that isn’t too silly, because in that mood silliness is contemptuous.
In an empowered mood, I read Valley of the Dolls. It’s glitz! It’s glamour! It’s actually quite bleak! But empowered-me pretends not to see the horrible parts. Valley is a guilty pleasure in some ways. It’s on my list of favourite books and I’ve read it many times. I sometimes feel like a hidden, fourth protagonist, if I’m really feeling puissant, observing the other three and carefully judging their actions. I sympathise, I cringe and cheer alongside them, but I secretly know I would have done it far better.
Anger makes me read angry books. Joe Abercrombie is my go-to for bitter rage. The First Law trilogy has a host of grotesques who are either as angry as me, or who give me a target for my unjust wrath. Barbarians, torturers, duellists, mages… all have their own grudges and agendas. All are out for what they can get and they don’t care who they tread into the dirt to get it. I do feel sorry for Major West, though. He’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time playing clean up for people who have royally messed up, or doing the difficult thing because someone has to. Major West makes me angry on his behalf.
On the seemingly rare occasion that I am in a happy mood, I read The Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser. It’s a romp: an anachronistic, swash-buckling adventure with pirates and the Spanish Main, and natives and treasure and romance and sword fights and blackguards and the briny deep and silly accents. It takes historical figures and events, a bit of fluffing the actual year, the best of every pirate story you know, peppers them with awful jokes and modern references, and fires it at you from a cannon. My dad and I each own a copy – he got sick of me borrowing his and bought me an identical one.
When I get an attack of the romantic feels and I feel like wearing my ovaries on the outside for once, I have a few options. 1. Chocolat, which I will gush on and on about whether people want me to or not, 2. The Time Traveller’s Wife because oh, goodness, the feels, 3. Memoirs of a Geisha for its slow-burning love and lifetime of dedication. All three are guaranteed to be read snuggled in a blanket with chocolate to hand.
Of course, books can also evoke the whole gamut of emotions within me. I think the last book that really made me weep buckets was The Book Thief. It even tells you at the beginning how it’s going to end because most of the book is a “how we ended up here” thing, but somehow you manage to forget and then with a sense of impending doom you realise ohnonononononono… but it’s too late, you’re hooked, and the last few pages are blurry because of all the tears. Brilliant!
My friend Rivka is an author and her books have been known to provoke a strong reaction. She has an ongoing series called Masquerade which is at its most basic, a cautionary tale about vampires and sociopathy. The male protagonist of the first book, Tristan… my God, when I finished the book I wanted to hurl it across the room in unadulterated rage! Then I realised I was reading an ebook on my laptop and that probably wasn’t a good plan.
I see strong reaction – positive or negative – as a good sign. It means that I care one way or another. I have opinions about the characters or the story. I rarely these days read books which only garner a “meh”. Either I’m very easily-led or I’m extremely good at picking books that provoke a reaction. Reading a book is like signing a secret contract with my soul that states that the experience will teach me something. Whether I’m put through the wringer in a happy, sad, or ragequit way, it’s always a worthwhile experience. It shows me my limits. It pushes my limits. Reading is a way of navigating the dark forest of my insides where each book is a tiny fragment of the map.
…and now I’m feeling introspective. What’s my choice for that? A long stare at my nine shelves of maps before I give up and watch Avengers instead. Lovely.