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 Amazon.com, 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
Pretty girls, fox spirits, sex...
Images from soft-porn classic of old China
Intimacy in an English village
Character is destiny
Sly wisdom of Chuangtse
Blessings and benediction
It’s that brief look she gave me that bedevils me
Life, love, suffering and courage, by Lin Yutang
Khushwant Singh reflects on the departed English
and a fixed income to keep one alive in the sunshine
Moved by the sound of wind and the hum of insects
Excerpt from The Scholars 儒林外史
If you were as sharp as Miss Marple
Wordsworth’ reflection on nature’s healing
Dream of the Red Chamber