5 Books I Love to Read over and over again

It may not always be obvious, but long before I became a film fanatic, I was an avid reader. From my childhood days onwards, there was hardly a day which I didn’t spend with my nose in a book. For a long time, I read almost everything I could find – luckily, my parents had a knack for picking out great books, so that probably helped further my love for the written word. My formative years were spent in the company of Astrid Lindgren, Michael Ende and Erich Kästner and to these day I am convinced that they are the three greatest authors of children’s literature ever.

None of them are represented on this list, however, for as much as I love their books, I also feel I have outgrown them slightly. Occasionally, I pick one of them up and remember the good old days when reading was the greatest thing imaginable. Nowadays, I read much less and very erratically. There are periods – months sometimes, in which I do not turn a single page. And then there are times where I read five books a week and seem to be doing little else.

The five books (or “written works”, rather) I am going to talk about in this article are ones I treasure above all others. Not because I believe they are the best ever written or even my favourite ones, but because they are a sort of comfort food for the mind for me. Whenever I’m feeling down, I love to pick them back up and read them again. They, quite simply, cheer me up. So don’t expect great Russian literature of the 18th century after the jump, but a declaration of love for books many people would consider – maybe even rightfully so – trite.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galxy” – and its four sequels – was the first book I ever read in English. The friend who recommended it insisted that it was the only way to fully appreciate its unique sense of humour. And for the first time in my life (I was probably around fourteen at the time), I understood that humour did not necessarily mean crudeness or silliness, but could very well mean deep philosophical insight and extreme intelligence. It is of course entirely possible and probably even likely that I was subconsciously aware of that before I read Douglas Adams magnum opus, but this book really made me understand it. Ever since then, I have read the book whenever I needed to be reminded of that fact -  and while the first is easily the best if you need a quick pick-me-up, I also enjoy the sequels, even the bleak and somehow more sad than funny “Mostly Harmless”.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter series

When I first heard about those Potter books, I was sceptical, to put it mildly. “Books about a boy who discovers he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school? That are widely popular? I’m above such childish nonsense!” Then, on a memorable trip with my family, I was forced to listen to the first two books, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, as books on tape. It took about two sentences to hook me. (This is completely untrue. It wasn’t until about the middle of the first book that I stopped complaining about that “childish rubbish”, but I would rather not admit to such childish behaviour.) On the return journey, I read the third book to my family and when the fourth book was published, I bought and read it immediately. But it is really the later books, especially “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, that are the reasons why I revisit the series time and time again. There is still the simplicity of the early stories about them, but the world they are set in is very much grown-up, dark and sinister. The message of the Potter books – Love Conquers All – is plain enough, but to see it put into effect is a joy every time. I am not in the habit of quoting myself (This is also not true.), but I still believe that I put it best when discussing whether J.K. Rowling deserves a Nobel Prize for Literature for these books: “She might not be a great author, but she is the greatest storyteller writing today.” And sometimes, a great story is all you need.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Speaking of Nobel Prize Laureates, Thomas Mann actually is one. He did not get it for “The Magic Mountain”, but for “The Buddenbrooks”, a novel that is far inferior to his best work. “The Magic Mountain” is an odd selection for a comfort book. It’s an often fiendishly difficult to read epic novel with parts written in foreign languages so that one who does not speak them is constantly forced to turn to the translations in the back of the book. The story is not the least bit comforting and neither is the prose. And still I love this book. I remember, when I went to the United States as an exchange student – I was 16 at the time – this was the one book I took. And in those first difficult weeks in that desolate place known as Lincoln, Nebraska, nothing gave me greater comfort than flipping through the novel and finding the parts, that I especially enjoyed. I have only read the book cover to cover twice – far less than any of the other books listed here – and it has been years, since last I read any of it, but it helped me immensely when I needed it and for that it will always be one of my favourite books. On a sidenote, I really enjoyed my stay in Lincoln and I don’t even consider this Thomas Mann’s best book – that honour falls to “Doctor Faustus. The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend”, but nobody could ever consider that a book to read again when in a bad mood.

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

What Douglas Adams did for science-fiction – combine it with so much humour that the result goes far beyond mere parody – Terry Pratchett did for fantasy. To this day, he has written over 30 novels that are set on the Discworld – a world that is flat and travels through outer space supported by four elephants that are standing on the back of a giant turtle. Almost all of those novels are incredibly funny, filled with memorable characters and, especially the later works, with brilliant satire of not just fantasy, but many aspects of society. Yet “Night Watch” is something special. It deals with characters that Discworld fans know and love, but for the first time, real emotion also enters the story. The novel achieves something that only the very best comedy can achieve, something that every tragicomedian aspires to but very few ever accomplish – you don’t just laugh with the characters, but you cry with them as well (figuratively speaking, obviously). While I enjoy almost all of the Discworld novels as solid entertainment, this one goes far beyond that and because I didn’t expect that when I first read it, it hit me even harder. So sometimes, when a little humour is not enough, when I need an actual tragic story to go with that, I reread “Night Watch”. And after that I just might have to read the other 30 or so books again as well.

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Another author known for his extraordinary sense of humour that translates perfectly to his writing, it would not be hard to list all of his work here. Even when dealing with terrible topics like World War II and the fire-bombing of Dresden (in “Slaughterhouse Five”), Vonnegut never resorts to pessimism. He had a unique outlook on life that was both funny and inspiring and when I don’t have the time to read an entire novel, I just look at this eulogy of sorts to remind myself of it. But there isn’t a single book of his that serves better as an emotional pick-me-up than “Cat’s Cradle”, with its outlandish story, crazy yet horribly familiar characters and the greatest fake religion ever invented, Bokononism. The message in Vonnegut’s book is often the same, but it is so great that it bears repeating and never is it more repeated than in ‘Cat’s Cradle”, even if the best wording is from “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”: “God damit it, you’ve got to be kind”. If you have never read any Vonnegut or have maybe even never heard of him, do yourself a favour and read the article linked to above. You will discover the greatest comfort book author of all time – for his books combine all the elements that a book I love to read over and over again needs: a message I can get behind, insightful and intelligent humour and a world that it is very easy to lose yourself into. And if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

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