The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known, says Kenko, Essays in Idleness

You come home at the end of a long day from work or school. You crawl onto a sofa like a lizard on a rock, then reach for the remote to flick on the TV set, hoping to catch a mindlessly entertaining programme to kill time.


Instead, do what I do:

I have a scattering of comfort books lying about the house; so when body and mind are stressed out, I pull out a volume, flip it open at no particular page, and read whatever I find.

Comfort books can be of any category or genre — old-loved novels or short story anthologies, armchair travelogues, memoirs, a scattering of poems, one of Lord Buddha’s Discourses, even a well-illustrated children's book — evergreen content that gives a cheer, a smile or a reflective pause, as we seem to hear

Someone far away was reading a sutra, and
someone was invoking the Holy Name... Tale of Genji

Some early favourites from Secondary school days are the conversational essays written in the 1930s by Dr Lin Yutang 林語堂, scholar, bestselling translator of Chinese classics into English, and laidback observer of life.

Dr Lin’s own English-language works include Moment in Peking (a novel of life, love and manners in war-torn China from 1900-1930), and The Importance of Living and The Wisdom of China (both anthologies).

I also enjoy his translation of Six Chapters of a Floating Life 浮生六記, the autobiography of an 18th Century scholar who fails in career and social status but wins in love, friendship and the simple pleasures of life.

A meandering but absorbing novel I thoroughly enjoyed is The Unofficial History of the Scholars 儒林外史 by Wu Ching-tzu (completed in 1790). The excerpt in Chapter 24 describes a typical day at the yamen or district court.

One of the most memorable comfort books is Sei Shonagon’s  Pillow Book  清少納言 枕草子 (Makura no Sōshi). I used to imitate its style and tone in my diary-writing days as an overly sentimental wide-eyed teenager.

Other comfort books include The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett; Emily Dickinson’s Poems, James Joyce’s Dubliners short stories (but not his incoherent Ulysses), Rumi’s Mystic Poems, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Virginia Woolf’s expressive essays and her sensible novella, Mrs Dalloway, William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, William Hazlitt’s Essays, WH Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago, and Rudyard Kipling’s rhyming poems and plain tales.

These are what I call Level 2 works. They are more limited in scope than the grander, verbose Level 1 tomes of great heft (Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas come to mind) that take forever to plough through. With notable exceptions, Level 2 books are slim, at most 200 pages. They are easy to read, easy to finish and easy to remember. And they remain fresh despite constant re-reading.

I’m too indolent to learn Swahili or climb Mount Everest. I detest golf and the people — politicians, potbellied businessmen and philandering sportsmen — playing the fakey sport (I was surprised, though, to read in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that schoolgirls in early 20th Century Scotland enjoyed golf).

So, I curl myself with a book from those hundred-odd volumes on the shelves and recondite corners in my house. They are always ready to share a chat, an anecdote or a well-turned idea. Most of the titles can be purchased from, including Lin Yutang’s out-of-print books.

And hostage from the future took
In trained thought and lore of book.

— John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-bound, A Winter Idyl

Francis Chin, Vesak Day, June 2, 2004

Books worth re-reading

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Through the Dark Wood

Painted Skin  Strange Tales 聊齋誌異
Pretty girls, fox spirits, sex...

The land of longing  Women poets of China

Kill the old man if you think hes a Were-tiger

What men lust after 
Images from soft-porn classic of old China

The Isle of Voices where pebbles turn into gold

A Month in the Country 
Intimacy in an English village

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Character is destiny

Knowing the happiness of fish 
Sly wisdom of Chuangtse

Life has many happy endings 
Blessings and benediction

Romance of the Western Chamber 
It’s that brief look she gave me that bedevils me

Moment in Peking  京華煙雲
Life, love, suffering and courage, by Lin Yutang

Sagittarius Rising Life in the sky by Cecil Lewis

The Road to Oxiana Travel in Afghanistan

Essays in Idleness Wisdom, pleasure of doing nothing

The Country of the Pointed Firs  Unhurried recollections  

Tale of Genji Passion and poetry under autumn skies

The Haunted Simla Road 
Khushwant Singh reflects on the departed English

In Simla, we wander at our own sweet will 

The Mysterious Stranger Mark Twain

Huckleberry Finn, Life on the river Mark Twain

Existing in someone’s mind in Sophie’s World

Capricious friendship, secondhand books Virginia Woolf

People who strike us, who seem alive Virginia Woolf

Restating the worth of man behind bars John Cheever

Kaleidoscope of unforgettables Gabriel García Márquez

Fine day of lovely breezes The Lan Ting Prologue

The word not spoken Silent meaning

Old age and an adamantine faith

Reading spiritually clever, chimp books

Dewey Readmore Books

When the eyes of the stone lion turn red

Things Fall Apart Tribal wisdom by Chinua Acebe

Why we read Being book-savvy

Far Away & Long Ago Childhood in the Pampas

Yellow Millet Dream Ambition, fame, dishonour

Gilgamesh’s search for immortality

Cloud tea: More precious than gems

A Room of One's Own
and a fixed income to keep one alive in the sunshine

Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Moved by the sound of wind and the hum of insects

Sei Shonagon enters a retreat

The mountains ahead look scary (The Hobbit)

Promiscuous reading

Goblin Market  Excerpts

Murder lawsuit at the yamen
Excerpt from The Scholars 儒林外史

Murder is bloody fun
If you were as sharp as Miss Marple

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Lines written above Tintern Abbey
Wordsworth’ reflection on nature’s healing

In Arabian Nights: Story in your heart

Beauties in old China
Dream of the Red Chamber

Sign InView Entries
Eric Gill's engraving illustrating the opening page of The Canterbury Tales
Epic of Gilgamesh
Francis Chin, Kyoto's old temple, November 1987
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Moment in Peking
Wu Ching-tzu, author of The Scholars
A Month in the Country