Ex Libris #13: Rainy Day Reading

During a recent five-day stretch of rainy weather here in Boston, I found myself doing even more reading than usual. I’d position myself on the couch in the corner between two windows, I’d wait until my imperious little Miniature Schnauzer had vaulted onto the top of the couch and settled herself, and then I’d luxuriate in hours and hours of reading.

Some of that reading came from the small stack of books I keep next to the couch, and some of that reading came from the big, bright library of e-books I keep on my trusty iPad with its rugged rubber case (if I didn’t drop-proof my technology, I would very, very soon have no technology). But all of that reading was done to the sound of rain lashing against the windows, rain sifting through the blooming lilacs, rain overflowing the stone birdbath.

And as many thousands of readers have noted over many thousands of years, probably since readers took shelter in Shaanxi Province in 4000 BC, all of that reading just felt better, because of the rain.

Somehow, it just feels more satisfying to read on a rainy day. I’ve read on far, far more sunny days than rainy ones, but it’s the rainy days I remember, whether it’s a porch in a holler in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle or a tiny bedroom under a roof in Brest or under an awning on a rocking boat off Raccoon Key. It’s the rainy day reading that fills my memory.

I once asked an obstetrician friend of mine about this, and since she’d midwived several hundred babies over the course of her career, she had fairly clear-cut views on the subject. “It’s the most natural thing in the world,” she said. “Your heart first beats in water. The first light your eyes see is filtered through water. The first sounds you hear are muffled by water. The first thing you breathe is water. No wonder we scream when we first meet the air. Water is home.”

And the curious thing, for me, is that the reading itself doesn’t need to be about the rain! I don’t need to curl up with Cynthia Barnett’s wonderful 2015 book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History on days like that rainy stretch in Boston, nor do I need to go straight to the stormiest chapters in CS Forester or Patrick O’Brian.

In my case, this time around, I read a variety of things. It didn’t take long to get through Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s new book Lost Companions , a collection of stories about the many ways humans have mourned their non-human friends over the centuries. Masson is an empathetic, deeply personal writer, and he’s learned over the course of writing half a dozen bestselling books exactly how to keep readers turning the pages of his books.

Far more memorable during that rainy stretch was I You We Them by Dan Gretton, subtitled “Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today.” Gretton uses the term “desk killers” to refer to the broad bureaucracy of enablers who stamped the requisitions, processed the paperwork, and signed off on the contracts of killing machinery without ever going anywhere near the death camps or firing squads themselves. Gretton takes a scholarly tone throughout his book, but that just makes some of his book’s ultimate implications – mainly that far more people have the potential to become desk killers than we might like to think – all the more unsettling.

Fortunately, during this particular rainy stretch, I had plenty of variety (how people who only read political or social tracts get from breakfast to supper is beyond me). Anna Bennett continued her “Debutante Diaries” series of Regency romances with When You Wish Upon a Rogue ; Dayton Ward writes about an intrepid band of Federation spies behind enemy lines in the Klingon Empire in Star Trek: Agents of Influence ; and Larry Tye’s book Demagogue charts the rise and fall of the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy.

All of it was enjoyable in its own way (although the Masson book naturally brought back a bunch of painful memories), but looking back I realize that once again the rain hitting the windows somehow enhanced the experience. There was still plenty of reading to be enjoyed once the sunny days returned. But there was also a dog to be walked, errands to run, and the outside world just in general to be enjoyed.

The rain gives us permission to skip all that and read. And in Boston, thankfully, the rainy days will be back.

Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.