Travelling abroad poses two major problems for people who read a lot. One is what books to carry; the other is how many. I know Kindle and Google between them have taken care of this problem now but for older people who prefer printed books, it is still a cause for worry. I am told Somerset Maugham, who not only read a lot but travelled a lot as well, used to carry a huge sack which was full of books of dozens of types. But then, those days there was no air travel and even after it came along, weight was only a minor problem. Maugham used to travel by ships and could carry 50 kilos of books with him. And porters were cheap. Today you would be lucky to be able to take along a tenth of that.
Maugham, if he didn’t like a book, had the luxury not only of discarding it but also of being able to find something else to read in his sack. Today you can still discard a boring book but then what do you read instead if you brought only five or six books? That is why you find most people carrying what, for the want of a better term, are called ‘comfort books. This is like comfort food — curd rice or dal chaval — and comfort music — film songs of the 1950s and 1960s. They are risk free books.
Somerset Maugham used to travel by ships and could carry 50 kilos of books with him.
When I googled “comfort books” it threw up pages upon pages of entries. These, according to bloggers, are the same books people turn to again and again. But honestly, how many times can you read the same book? My formula is to the same writers. I have about 20 favourite writers in all comprising thrillers, history and chicklit. I asked some friends who still read fiction — there are very few indeed, for some reason — whether they too had a secret cache of comfort writers. Most of them said yes, albeit somewhat grudgingly, I don’t know why. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. One of them also said reading them is like going to bed in old pajamas. Nice. What a wonderful way to put it.
It’s not very clear what it is about these comfort things which is so comfortable. Familiarity, predictability and association are probably one of the factors. But the lack of surprises, especially as one grows older, must also play a part surely. Who wants to eat an idli stuffed with keema? Those used to be available in some restaurants about 30 years back, along with keema dosas.
Where writers are concerned, I am not sure whether it is their style or the characters they create, or both. I find that regardless of which new character/s they are writing about, most writers follow the same style and that is very comforting. Once in a while, though, possibly because of urgings by someone close to them to do something different, they vary the style. It always ends in disaster, both in sales and reviews. Then they scurry back to their natural style.
Reading comfort books is like going to bed in old pajamas.
But I suppose there are also writers who would like to show their talent by writing in different styles. They cause a lot of discomfort for agents, publishers, marketers and, of course, readers. The clever ones, however, write under a different name, while taking care to let it be known that the new Y is actually the old X. The most recent example of this is the creator of Harry Potter, J K Rowling. She has been writing as Robert Galbraith for a few years now. But in my view at least these new detective novels are really not up to scratch.
So, here’s a piece of advice. If you are the reading type, when you are travelling stick to authors you are familiar with. Don’t experiment, because you could find yourself without anything to read.