The NS guide to self-indulgence - Light reading

The essence of turning a read into one of life's little luxuries is to choose something just a little less demanding than you would normally go for. It means rejecting this year's Big Novel, or anything recommended by men with heads like watermelons writing in the back of the NS. No theory. No angst. No damn information. Only then can you wallow. Only thus can reading be a forbidden treat.

We are talking, mostly, about novels. A few authors must be discarded immediately - George Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust - simply for being good. But some great novelists are brilliant for wallowing in, Jane Austen above all. Others who might have made it, such as Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, are out for writing books that are too big to be comfortably held. Men have a reliable source of light reading - great swathes of thrillers, all those sea stories by Patrick O'Brian, the Robert Harris yarns, Michael Dibdin. Women are even better off - those yards of historical romances; thrillers by P D James and Ruth Rendell; the aga sagas of Joanna Trollope. But the other secret is to re-read good children's books. If you're tired, there is nothing like sliding through the fur coats back into Narnia, frolicking in Sussex with Pooh or marching in the sleet with Rosemary Sutcliffe. Recapturing that first tickle of excitement, the smell of the old pages, the feel of old cloth coverings, is a sensation like nothing else. And there is a revival of great children's writing: Harry Potter has come out in an adult jacket, to avoid embarrassment on trains. Philip Pullman's fantasy novels, Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, are equally brilliant. So next time you feel you ought to read something, don't. Flick on the light and return to light reading instead.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet