Ex Libris #9: Sickbed Reading!
It’s slightly different for every person, but in all cases, you know it when you feel it: that moment when you’re sure something’s wrong. You skin suddenly feels thinner; your ears are more sensitive; simple movements become not only burdensome but uncoordinated. You feel muggy and slightly overheated; your head-space tightens so that even blinking becomes a little wincing; and worst of all, through all this, you know what’s coming. The wheezing. The sneezing. The achey, lethargic misery of a bad cold.
If you’re of the histrionic bent, that misery is compounded by the fact that what we’re talking about here is ONLY a bad cold. No matter how rotten it makes you feel for the next week, everybody knows, and you yourself know, that it’s not serious. It’s not the flu, or whooping cough, or wandering kidney – it’s just a bad cold. If you’re lucky, you can skip a few days of work and binge-watch “Star Trek” on the couch swaddled in blankets, but the hard truth is that even your nearest and dearest are going to tinge their sympathy with just a touch of laughter, the savages.
During those swaddled couch-days, bookish people of course don’t abandon reading. Countless are the journal and diary entries of readers throughout the centuries persevering in their addiction during bouts of Nile dysentery, virulent botulism, and burning frostbite. In fact, something about the enhanced delicacy of a bad cold tends to make the jangle of always-on electronic media feel extra intrusive; slurping, hacking, eye-watering poor sufferers often prefer turning to the perpetual quiet haven of the printed page.
But not just any printed page, as I, a recent poor sufferer, had occasion to remember quite vividly. When you’re a quivering pile of gelatinous goo, only the just-right books will do. At such times, I’m in no mood for the new releases that usually form the vast majority of my reading fare. Gone is my interest in the annoying latest “it”-novel or a ham-handed new translation of Flaubert or a brilliant, challenging new interpretation of the Habsburg Empire. Such things usually thrill me, but when I’m bundled up on the couch decomposing like Swamp Thing, I want only that most carefully-rationed of reading delights: the comfort read.
Of course, comfort reads can take a wide variety of forms, and each has its uses. A winter night’s comfort read might turn out to be a cozy Regency romance, or, perversely, a book ABOUT winter, or, most readily of all, a return to 221b Baker Street. Summer comfort reads almost always involve a trip to the desert planet Arrakis, better known as Dune. A perfect comfort read during a time of pointed stress usually puts me back in friendly company guaranteed to make me smile – give me the trials of Rumpole at such times, or the diaries of Pepys or Boswell.
And over the years, I’ve found that the perfect comfort read for me when I’m in the grip of a bad cold is that red-tinted near-cousin twinkling in the night sky. When I’m sick on the couch, I long to travel to the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom tales.
Like everybody else in the country at the turn of the 20th century, Burroughs had had his imagination fired by talk of exotic civilizations on Mars. Specifically, all this imagination-firing had been done mainly by an absolutely terrific trilogy that really ought never to be out of print: “Mars” (1895), “Mars and Its Canals” (1906), and “Mars as an Abode of Life,” (1909), written by the great Boston Brahmin astronomer Percival Lowell as gamesome extrapolations on the researches and writings of forerunners like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Camille Flammarion. Lowell’s trilogy is beautifully-written extrapolatory nonfiction, the kind of stuff a pitiless reading public tends to discard merely for turning out to be wrong. Now, a century later, we know that Mars isn’t home to exotic canal-building civilizations (the most our recent probes can hope for are some hardy subterranean bacteria), but nobody in 1906 knew that. Lowell took what was known and adorned it with gorgeous speculation, and for this his books are forgotten.
But not so their most famous progeny! In 1912 All-Story Magazine began serializing the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure-fantasy stories set on Mars, which its inhabitants call Barsoom. Vividly inspired by Lowell’s books (no doubt with a heavy cross-pollination from HG Wells’ 1898 thriller “The War of the Worlds”), “Under the Moons of Mars” became the book called “A Princess of Mars,” and it was followed by many sequels. Like Lowell’s books, the ERB Barsoom novels begin with a trilogy, “A Princess of Mars,” “The Gods of Mars,” and “The Warlord of Mars,” all featuring the adventures of the Earthman John Carter, who’s transported to Mars not from a miserable sick bed but from the badlands of Arizona and there rises by gallantry and the skill of his sword-arm to become the foremost hero of the planet.
John Carter is a proto-Superman: his muscles, conditioned to Earth’s much greater gravity, give him phenomenal strength and speed on Mars. Which is all well and good for a few books, but Burroughs was too canny a hack not to know he’d need to switch things up a bit. He did this in two ways: he’d either conveniently forget that John Carter should be able to punch the head off any monster he encounters, or he’d center subsequent books on more-or-less ordinary Barsoomians.
I confess, when I’m feeling slurpy and non-responsive, it’s these non-John books I tend to prefer. This time around, it was Burroughs’ 1916 novel “Thuvia, Maid of Mars,” in which a dashing hero (John Carter’s son Carthoris, whose inherited Earthly abilities basically amount to being a better-than-average gymnast) has a whole bunch of adventures in his quest to rescue the kidnapped Thuvia, princess of Ptarth. Turning its pages for, by a conservative estimate, the 100th time, I was briefly and mercifully abstracted from the aches and pains and piles of used Kleenex.
Say what you want about the Barsoom novels – and it’s possible to say plenty (they’re not exactly Tolstoy) – it takes a very real and undeniable magic to make that happen. For a few hours, I was living in an alien world where the heroes and heroines are pure, where even the villains are brave, and, most especially, where there are no head colds. I came back to the world of responsible reading in a few days, and I was happy to do so – but oh my, was I grateful for the old magic when I really needed it.
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.