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Friday, March 7, 2014

Books to prescribe for the convalescent

by John MacBeath Watkins

Recovering from abdominal surgery is taking longer than I had anticipated, and has given me an opportunity to test various books for their medicinal effects.

For the first week or so, I was taking narcotic pain killers at four-hour intervals and spending most of my time sleeping. Even this was not enough to tamp down my brain activity sufficiently to make television intellectually stimulating. I requested the same books I prescribe to others for periods of recuperation, the light romantic comedies of P.G. Wodehouse.

These books work very well at keeping you sitting still while your wounds heal, and the mood is light enough to raise your spirits. Mood and pacing are important aspects of a book for treating illness. If your attention wanders, it will be difficult to get enough rest. If the mood is too dark, it will not help you evade the financial worries that often accompany a period of illness, or counteract the effects of the central nervous system depressants often prescribed as painkillers.

Humor is an important aspect in keeping your mood up, so authors like Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett are good as well, but humor is hard, so Wodehouse is sovereign in the treatment of almost any illness, because he was the greatest humorist in the English language. There are non-fiction works that function pretty well in this regard, such as They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, by David Rose.While American personal ads tend to be earnest and aspirational, telling how good a prospect you are, the English seem to prefer a display of wit such as:
"Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible"
 Or:
"Bald, fat, short, and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite."
Or:
"Blah blah, whatever. Indifferent woman. Go ahead and write. Box no. 3253. Like I care."
Or
"Your stars for today: A pretty Cancerian, 35, will cook you a lovely meal, caress your hair softly, then squeeze every damn penny from your adulterous bank account before slashing the tyres of your Beamer. Let that serve as a warning. Now then, risotto?"
The other thing a book must have is the ability to grip your attention and not let you go. Remember, one of the reviews of Robert Ludlum's first books was "this is a terrible book, so I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading it." A book need not have a great literary reputation to have the therapeutic effect of making your stay in bed tolerable. I read several of Steven Brust's books about his cheerful assassin/gangster, Vlad Taltos, with enjoyment during my convalescence on this principle.

There is a book about a police officer recuperating while trying to solve a crime committed centuries earlier, The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. I find the history a bit suspect -- Richard III probably did kill those lads or have them killed -- but the book is enjoyable.

And of course, any mystery by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett will grip you enough to keep you occupied while you must remain in bed.

Steer clear of episodic, long books, like Moby Dick, a book I think should be read in small bites over a long period of time. Few of the great books are as easy as a person taking large doses of painkiller needs. Convalescent boredom is not like ordinary boredom, it is accompanied by the fact that you are not at your intellectual peak.

So, give yourself a break and read something enjoyable and easy.


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