Escapist Reading

How would you define escapist literature? I suppose it means different things to different people. It could be anything from thrillers to romance novels, humor, fantasy, science fiction, cookbooks, or – one of my personal favorites – the Ikea catalogue.

I used to read a lot of thrillers. Our bookshelves still carry rows of Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton. For years I refused to read any Dick Francis thrillers on the grounds that I know nothing about horse racing and don't particularly care for horses, which are forever associated in my mind with Peter Shaffer's play Equus. But once I started, I got hooked and read them all (or very nearly all). I even went as far as asking to be taken to the races on a visit to England, to see with my own eyes what the fuss was all about.
However, in recent years I found that I've been taking these thrillers much too much to heart. I really worry about those fictional heroes. I can't bear to read about the beatings they take. I have nightmares about chases in dark alleyways. Let's face it – no matter where the action takes place, whether on Earth or in a "galaxy far far away", and no matter if the protagonists are flesh-and-blood, metal-and-silicone, or aether and thought-waves, the themes are always the same: war and strife, ambition and jealousy, love and hate. I have enough of all that here on Planet Earth, all around me. So I'm giving this genre a rest.

I also used to seek out novels and short stories that made me laugh and chuckle out loud – P.G. Wodehouse, Gerald Durrell, Robert Benchley, Ephraim Kishon, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, to name a few. Unfortunately, there seems to be a finite quantity of Really Funny literature out there. Writing humor – truly witty and funny, and that, in addition, says something meaningful about human nature, the human condition, the world we live in – is very difficult and requires rare talent.

So you see, there was a void in my life. A vacuum. And as you know, nature abhors a vacuum.

Said vacuum has for now been satisfactorily filled: I have stepped up my consumption of popular science. I find solace and peace of mind reading about how the universe came to be, black holes, the curvature of spacetime, teensy-weensy particles with weird names like the Higgs boson and the charm quark; the intricacies of supersymmetry, string theory, eleven dimensions and Calabi Yau shapes. Head-spinning stuff. (Pun intended for those in the know about spin, zero spin, half spin.)

Though it's called popular science, I don't really know how popular it is. For people like me, who studied in the Humanities track in high school and later concentrated on literature, linguistics and writing, all that physics is pretty mysterious stuff and makes for somewhat difficult reading. Especially at bedtime. As you probably know, Stephen Hawking' A Brief History of Time was a best-seller. But how many people have actually read it cover-to-cover? Or can tell you what it's about, beyond stammering "Well, yes, it's about… uh… the universe, and, uh… time…" And how many can point out that on page such-and-such (sorry, I should have marked it in pencil) he actually cracks a joke?... I wonder.

But, whatever I'm reading, an editor remains an editor. I read, pencil in hand, circling difficult words and unfamiliar concepts to be looked up later (or rather, the following day); I add "ha!" in the margins when the writer manages to amuse me (some writers try too hard); I underline Important Passages, hoping that they'll stick in my mind; and I put an exclamation mark in the margin when I find a mistake. Obviously, in any fat book you're bound to find small errors that eluded the editor and the proofreader. But some mistakes are worth mentioning – at least to fellow language pros.

The Life & Death of Planet Earth (Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee) is a fascinating, thought provoking book, though not recommended for born-worriers who are not consoled by the fact that the calamities described are millions of years in the future. It also contains typos, missed words, and a few strange grammatical constructions. On the subject of Earthlings "colonizing" Mars, it says on page 201: "The problem is not technology per say, it is the cost." Well. I can't argue with the writers about when the next Ice Age may be, but "per say"???

My current head-spinner is Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics. I won't give away any of the juicy details, in case you want to read it some day. But I assure you Smolin goes to great lengths (as great as you can without involving actual calculations and formulas) to explain why physics has not advanced as much as it should have in the past decades. Compared to previous books I read, this one is somewhat less escapist, because it covers a lot of conflict and competitiveness within professional circles. I'll try to skip those passages. Or else I'll just switch to Nikolai Gogol; I've always wanted to read The Overcoat.


Reading List (partial)
Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions
Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos; The Elegant Universe
Paul Davies: About Time; The Origin of Life
Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee: The Life and Death of Planet Earth
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time
Terry Pratchett, with Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: The Science of Discworld I, The Science of Discworld II, The Science of Discworld III


Anonymous said...

Well, you left the "ld" in "Discworld" unitalicized, but I'll let it go. Speaking of the Ikea catalog, some of the best writing I've read is the Land's End Catalog -- no joke. And I will go out on a limb and state that Mad magazine's English is perfect. I honestly think that's what pushed it over the edge to a long-lasting publication. No kidding -- check it out at:

Georg said...

Bonjour Nina,

I liked very much your comment about literature that makes laugh. You are absolutely right, not easy to find meaning and humor together.

Those other authors you mention: are they really funny??

I am a great admirer of PG Wodehouse, a pleasure to read, such an inventive English.


Shira said...

Gogol - escapist reading?!
I have never finished reading the book of short stories I got as a bday present because I could not help identifying with each and every character. I was very upset when "I" lost my nose.

Post a Comment