I think all readers have their comfort blankets; books that have to be nearby, even if they're not frequently read. Some of mine will come as no surprise to most of you - Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, LeGuin's Earthsea, Pratchett's Diskworld. Books from my childhood and teens; comfortable like an old jumper with holes in the elbows and history woven through.
Others are newer; I've been reading Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos stories since my first visit to London as an adult. I was giving a paper at a conference, and the Library Association had an arrangement with, of all places, the Union Jack club in Waterloo. The Union Jack is a private members club for serving and ex members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, and I rented a room there for the three days of the conference. As a geeky, skinny, spekkie 22 year old, I really didn't fit in with either the squaddies or the officers who were in the bar and in the TV room. So I wandered around Waterloo until I found a remaindered book shop (which is still there) and bought and devoured the first three novels. They're not my favourites though. The real comfort blanket for me is Issola, which is a tale of love, friendship and manners. Without spoilers, the ending is probably the saddest of all of Brust's novels, and yet that feeling of loving melancholy is one I return to again and again.
Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise stories keep pulling me back. They're short - the 1970s and 80's Pan paperbacks I have (with the most ridiculous covers) are 70,000 words or so. Small enough to put in the back pocket of a pair of jeans or inside a coat, short enough to devour in a couple of hours, familiarity allowing me to concertina through the stories - flipping ahead quickly to get to the parts that I savour. O'Donnell's writing is slick, and his characters are way better than Bond for emphasising with, even if his situations are as far fetched.
And then, my most escapist, most comfortable blanket of all - Kipling's Kim. There's a lovely moment in Stalkey and Co, where the headmaster of the school, having just beaten Stalkey, M'Turk and Beetle for breaking rule 7 into little bits (breaking school boundaries, smoking, getting their teachers into trouble), tells them '"And that reminds me. There are a pile of paper-backs on that shelf. You can borrow them if you put them back. I don't think they'll take any harm from being read in the open. They smell of tobacco rather. You will go to prep. this evening as usual. Good-night." My copy of Kim is like that. (Well, without the tobacco smoke.) It's a hardback from 1957 that will fit into any coat I own, and I've read it many times. The paper is thin, but of much higher quality than you see now in books, and durable; I've no doubt it will out last me.
And it begins: "He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire breathing dragon' hold the Punjab, for that great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot."
Why the introspection?I was chatting to friends in the pub on Friday night about tech, and Kindles, and possible changes, and we all acknowledged that we're reading more and more ebooks, and buying fewer paper books. (And the same with movies and music.) But if you walk into my flat at present, you'll see books in every room; my personality and choices on display. We're moving away with that; if I read a Kindle in public you have no idea what I'm looking at; no longer will publishers have to create 'adult' covers for Harry Potter so businessmen can read them on the train without embarrassment. The ebook reader brings privacy, but at the cost of shuttering a quick glimpse into the soul.