Of the 2,000 or so books that I own, a small subset belong to a category I call old sweaters. They are the select few that I pull off the shelf most often when I need to be reminded that books still matter, that they are magical and will endure no matter how many other forms of leisure or entertainment conspire to shove them into obscurity. Like actual old sweaters, these books are comfortable, but not because they fail to challenge me, or confirm already held beliefs. Quite the opposite: They comfort me because I know that they will always stimulate my intellect and reawaken me to the possibilities of good storytelling.
There’s no common thread linking these books, other than that they are all worth reading. I turn to a different old sweater depending on the type of experience I want. If I need to laugh, the book I opt for most often is my old Penguin paperback of P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves—Penguin as I choose to still think of it, with the orange spines and the black and white lettering for the author and title. Jeeves is one of the finest comic novels ever written. It’s a goofy little masterpiece, highlighted by the long set piece in which Bertie Wooster’s love-struck friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, drunk on spiked orange juice, hands out awards to the students of the Market Snodsbury Grammar School. I’ve yet to have a dark mood that this passage couldn’t lighten.
A different but no less satisfying experience is Kazuo Ishiguro’s underappreciated novel The Unconsoled. This surreal novel is about a pianist named Ryder who arrives at a hotel in an unnamed city to perform a concert. At least that’s what the opening paragraphs lead you to believe. But the bellman who carries Ryder’s bags takes five pages to relate a story as they ride the elevator to Ryder’s room. An elevator ride couldn’t possibly be this long, nor is it likely that the room would look almost exactly like Ryder’s childhood bedroom. Later in the day, Ryder leaves the hotel and enters not the busy city he thought he was in but a meadow in a distinctly more rural part of the world. By now, it has become clear that The Unconsoled is not the story of a concert but a clever portrait of a dream, a journey through the mind of a man questioning the choices he has made and revisiting major decisions in an attempt to figure out where he went wrong. It’s hard for a novel to be both surreal and moving, but Ishiguro somehow achieves this feat. This is a wonderful book.
Several more well-thumbed works of perfection line my shelves. Disgrace is one; Tinkers, a relatively new old sweater, is another. Also Lolita, A Handful of Dust, Anna Karenina, The Way We Live Now, Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. All great novels. These are the books that make me want to write and read. These are the old sweaters that assure me that a life lived in large part through books is a life well spent.