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Hospital Reading

Alberto Manguel

What one needs for hospital reading is the literary equivalent of comfort food.

Two weeks before Christmas last year, I was told that I needed an urgent operation, so urgent in fact that I had no time to pack. I found myself lying in a pristine emergency room, uncomfortable and anxious, with no books except for the one I had been reading that morning, Cees Nooteboom’s delightful In the Dutch Mountains, which I finished in a few hours. To spend the next fourteen days convalescing in hospital without any reading seemed to me a torture too great to bear, so when my partner offered to bring me a few books from my library, I seized the opportunity gratefully. But which did I want?

Pete Seeger and the author of Ecclesiastes have taught us that for every thing there is a season; likewise, I might add, for every season there is a book. But readers know that not just any book is suited to any occasion. Pity the soul who finds itself with the wrong book in the wrong place, like poor Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole, whose bookbag sank under the ice, so that he was constrained to read, night after freezing night, Dr. John Gauden’s indigestible Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings. There are books for reading after lovemaking and books to read while waiting in the airport lounge, books for the breakfast table and for the bathroom, books for insomniac nights at home and for insomniac days in the hospital. The list of books Oscar Wilde requested in “The Balad of Reading Gaol” included Treasure Island and a French-Italian conversation manual. Alexander the Great went on his campaigns with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. Do astronauts take Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles on their journeys? If Bernard Madoff spends any time in prison, will he demand Dickens’s Little Dorrit, to read how the embezzler Mr. Merdle, unable to bear the shame of being found out, cuts his throat with a borrowed razor? The list of books we seek out for a particular occasion is always personal, and few are those who can accurately guess what another reader needs or wishes for. What books would best keep me company in my hospital cell?

I’m not a user of e-books; I require the more solid flesh of paper and ink. So I made a mental inventory of the books piled by my bed at home. I discarded recent fiction (too risky because un-proven), scientific essays (too cerebral: much as I’d been enjoying the Darwinian renaissance, I felt that a detailed account of the sea cucumber’s life would not be the right medicine), biographies (too crowded: hooked to a tangle of drips, I found other people’s presence annoying). At first I thought a good detective novel would be ideal, either an old favourite—a classic by John Dickson Carr—or a new title by Reginald Hill. But the anaesthetic had softened my brain and I knew that I’d find it difficult to follow even the simplest of Sherlockian ratiocinations. What I wanted was the equivalent of comfort food, something I’d once enjoyed and could endlessly and effortlessly revisit. I asked my friend to bring me my two volumes of Don Quixote.

Don Quixote was, I discovered with relief, the perfect choice. Because I’ve kept going back to it ever since my adolescence, I knew I wasn’t going to be tripped by the surprises of its plot; and since it’s a book that I could read just for the pleasure of its invention, without having to delve into its erudite conundrums, I could allow myself to drift peacefully away in the story’s flow, in the wake of the noble knight and his faithful sidekick. To my first high school reading of Don Quixote, guided by Professor Isaias Lerner, I have added many other readings over the years, undertaken in all sorts of places and moods. To those I can now add a medicinal Don Quixote, both a balm and a consolation.

Don Quixote eased me through those dreary days and intermittent nights; when I was told that I had to return to the hospital for a second operation, I was prepared. This time I carefully decided to pack four or five titles that would allow me a companionable variety. After much consideration, I settled on four categories:

A MISCELLANY, one of those volumes that allows us to wander in and out, aimlessly. The Trivia of Logan Pearson Smith, Samuel Butler’s Note-Books, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—all belong to this generous breed. I chose Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici: to the delights of a vagrant mind are added those of an intricate, exuberant style, reminiscent of baroque music.

A MEDITATIVE WORK, something soothingly philosophical, such as Jean Cocteau’s collection of essays The Difficulty of Being, or one of Plato’s early dialogues, or Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. I toyed with the idea of startling the nurses with two of Kierkegaard’s essays coalesced into one terrifying title, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death. I took with me King Lear, the saddest of all plays.

A BOOK TO MAKE ME SMILE. Alice in Wonderland, Thomas Love Peacock’s Crotchet Castle, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, Nabokov’s Pnin. I selected Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy, which seems written with a chuckle.

A COLLECTION OF POETRY. Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, Blas de Otero, Quevedo, John Donne, W.S. Merwin . . . I decided that an anthology would ease the choice, even if it could not contain everything I loved. I packed the Albatross Book of Verse, which I’ve read since my adolescence and know practically by heart.

These four books did the trick and I’m deeply grateful to them. Over the hospital weeks they kept vigil with me: they talked to me when I wanted entertainment, or waited quietly, attentively, by my bed. They never became impatient with me, or sententious or condescending. They continued a conversation begun ages ago, as if indifferent to time, as if taking for granted that this moment too would pass, along with the discomfort and the anxiety, and that only their remembered pages would remain, describing something of my own, intimate and dark, for which as yet I myself had no words.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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