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Not comfort books, I need comfort writers

July 31, 2017 09:06 IST

How many times can you read the same book?
Instead, T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan turns to different books by same writers -- they are like comfort food and comfort music.


Photograph: Paul Bence/Flickr

Once upon a time, Delhi used to have very well-stocked public libraries. The best of them was the Central Secretariat Library. But these libraries declined as the years went by. From the 1970s onwards one had to fend for oneself, mostly from bookshops.

One consequence of this was the reduction in the number of writers one was able to read because in those days, books cost quite a lot even in those now long-gone pavement shops, and each new writer was a gamble. I tried many writers only to find they had not been worth the money.

Kindle and Google between them have now taken care of this problem. One can browse just as one could then. The difference is that there was no capital cost then.

The restriction of choice gradually led to the emergence of what, for the want of a better description, I call comfort writers. They are like comfort food (curd rice) and comfort music (Hindi film songs of the 1950s and 1960s).

First, I googled 'comfort books' and Lo! it threw up pages upon pages of entries. But what I am talking about, quite emphatically, are not comfort books.

These, according to bloggers, are the same books they turn to again and again. That's boring. How many times can you read a book?

Instead, I turn to the same writers, but their different books. I have about 20 favourite writers in all. They do for me what the blanket did for Linus.

I asked friends who still read fiction -- 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.  

Style or characters? It's not very clear what it is about these comfort things which is so, well, 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?

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.

The best example of a writer trying something different -- that I can recall -- is The Naive and Sentimental Lover by John le Carré. That book was so different in style, content and characters that it bombed badly. The author quickly got back to what he did best, namely, write spy novels in that upper class drawl which he affects in his writing.

But I suppose there are also writers who would like to show their virtuosity by writing in different styles. They cause a lot of discomfort for agents, publishers, marketers and, of course, readers.

The clever ones 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 these new detective novels are really not up to scratch.

It just isn't Rowling's game, as indeed, the free unstructured, narrative style he adopted in that one-off book mentioned above wasn't le Carré's.

The Pigeon Tunnel, this is the name of the latest -- but not new -- le Carré book, and although it is riveting, I wish I hadn't read it. But I did because, for me, le Carré is a comfort writer.

For some reason, and somewhat to the annoyance of his biographer who produced a 700-page biography just the year before in 2015, le Carré has written about himself and his characters and how they came to be. He has demystified them entirely, which has caused me a great deal of discomfort.

I didn't want to know on whom the Tailor of Panama was based or for that matter who George Smiley etc were modelled on.

It's a mean thing le Carré has done, and I am striking him off my comfort writer list.

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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