Thursday, April 8, 2010

What to Read During Proxy Season

So, it's "proxy season," the busy time of year at my job. I work for a company that writes reports about corporate shareholder meetings, and the annual meeting of something like two-thirds of American companies takes place in the springtime, so there are a few months where we are absolutely swamped. As during all busy, stressful times in life, I must be hyper-vigilant about keeping sane and healthy. And, among other things, this requires carefully regulating what I read for pleasure.

I should note that there are two different kinds of stressful periods in life, which require different attitudes toward literature. If your stress results from having to do lots of different kinds of things in the course of a day--if you're constantly rushing from one event to another, with barely five minutes to catch your breath--books will be a low priority. You'll want to read something that relaxes you, but is not too long or gripping or involved. Magazine articles work well for this; also plays, if you like reading them. (As much as I love the theater, I cannot sink as deeply into a play as into a novel.)

But if your stress results from doing one, very dull thing for nearly twelve hours a day (say, data entry work in a cubicle), and traveling almost nowhere except to shuttle between your office and your apartment, that's when a good novel can save your life. Whenever you leave the office, for lunch or at the end of the day, you want to be able to open up a book that will immediately transport you to another world. In a way, you need to derive the same intense, absorbing pleasure from your book that smart children experience when they read novels.

So, that means that you shouldn't try to read anything that's dry, or brittle, or minimalist, or grim. But books that are too antic or high-spirited can also be a problem. Last year, during proxy season, I tried to read The Satanic Verses but had to put it down after 10 pages because Rushdie's style was far too manic--it stressed me out! Books that require too much mental energy, too much parsing, are also unacceptable: I love David Foster Wallace, but not at this time of year. A setting with a bit of glamor, exoticism, or foreignness, compellingly evoked, is a great advantage. This can also mean fiction that comes from and/or takes place in the past--and thus lets you escape the 21st-century workday world. And, because during proxy season, you don't have the time to waste on mediocre entertainment, the book has to be good. For this reason you may prefer to read time-tested classics, rather than new fiction.

You will see that a certain kind of novel from the early- to mid-20th century fits most of these qualifications quite well. Not the high modernists--Hemingway is too flat and sober; Faulkner and Woolf too convoluted. But authors like Edith Wharton, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh. (Proxy season is not the time to feel guilty about wanting to read only books that take place in an upper-class, moneyed milieu.) The kind of book that you would enjoy reading if you were sick in bed, propped up on nice pillows and with someone bringing you a mug of tea whenever you wanted one.

Contemporary fiction can work, too, if carefully chosen. Maybe The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which has the added bonus of a theme about why people escape into novels and comic books. Or, at the very beginning of proxy season this year, I read The Secret History, which also fits my qualifications: absorbing plot, glamorous milieu, intelligent but unobtrusive writing style. And then, because I saw a review that compared The Secret History to Brideshead Revisited, I moved on to reading the Waugh novel; which, as I said, is an even better example of an ideal proxy-season book.

I had excellent success reading The Age of Innocence during proxy season last year, noting that perhaps I liked it especially because it's a novel about being hemmed in by social convention, and I was reading it at the time of year when my own life is most hemmed-in and circumscribed. (I followed it up with The Custom of the Country, which didn't work so well--it is almost too mean-spirited, its heroine too disagreeable, to serve as a pleasant escape.) So, this year, I thought I might try The House of Mirth. However, there was not a copy of it for sale at my local used bookstore.

As I stood at "Wharton" and worked backward through the alphabet, I soon alighted upon a novel called The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. And, reading the following back-cover blurb, I decided that it sounded like an ideal book for proxy season: "A real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book--full of incident, full of family delights, full of parties and partings, strange bits of London... West's is a world that is a delight to enter and to live in, warm and vital, and constantly entertaining."

The Fountain Overflows was written in 1957 and takes place in Edwardian England. Semiautobiographical, it is based on West's own childhood. Just the way I like my proxy-season books, it has a classic and unobtrusive writing style, and it successfully transports me to another time and place. I'm about halfway through it at the moment and I do wish it had a bit more of a plot--it is very episodic. Still, it eminently fits my qualification of being the kind of book that I would like to read if I were sick, the kind of book that appeals to my inner child. As a little girl, I didn't mind if books were episodic, as long as they gave me a sense of what it would have been like to be a little girl growing up in a different era. And there is something nice about leaving work after a long day, cracking open The Fountain Overflows, and becoming a ten-year-old Edwardian girl, playing with dollhouses and eating roasted chestnuts and going for her first-ever ride in a motor car...


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