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June 6, 2012


I was thinking recently about The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey’s ever-fabulous illustration of A) how slippery truth can be, and B) how much one smart person can accomplish with no resources other than a good brain. At least, that’s what most people would probably say the book is about. But me, I was focused on what some might regard as a minor plot point: The fact that the protagonist – the aforementioned smart person, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard – is in the hospital, confined to his bed, and forced to RELY ON OTHER PEOPLE TO CHOOSE BOOKS FOR HIM.

Shall I say that again? Have I fully communicated the horror, the unmitigated awfulness of such a situation? And if you’re batting this concept around in your head, swaddled in the (spurious) certainty that it poses all the real-world threat of a cartoon shark, consider this: I WAS IN SUCH A HOSPITAL BED. And I, yes I, was – I can hardly bear to type the words – forced to rely on other people to choose my books.

In truth, it wasn’t quite as dreadful as it sounds, first because I was asleep for most of the initial few days, and second because I had been extremely stupid: When my doctor had uttered the fell words “You need to go to the hospital right now,” I responded by muttering something about feeding my cat. So instead of hopping into a hospital-heading taxi, as I should have done, I schlepped back across town, where I, yes, fed my cat, and also – this is the good part – packed up a bag containing my cell phone, my favorite pillow, and the first book I could lay my hands on, which happened to be a deeply distressed paperback of Fatherland, by Robert Harris, predicated on the always jolly premise that the Nazis won.

Actually, that’s not fair: The book may not be an uplifting saga of unicorns and the kittens who love them, but it’s a terrific read, and when I was conscious, I enjoyed it nearly as much as I had the first time around. By Day 3, however, I was conscious for increasing lengths of time, and, as a result, I was getting dangerously close to the end of Fatherland. I briefly harbored the hope that I would be allowed to leave and go home to my bookshelves, but no such luck. So I called in the troops.

They arrived, in the form of my friend Kiz and my ex, Jim. Kiz, bless her, came toting a charger for my phone; Jim – who had been feeding my cat and giving her pills twice a day – brought my laptop, some facial cleanser, and the information that, with my hair “all mashed down like that” and my glasses perched at the end of my nose, I looked like Benjamin Franklin. And as requested, they both brought books.

Unfortunately, they were not books I wanted to read. One was an account of the Black Death, in the 14th century, and it involved many more bodily fluids, some of them making a fairly violent exit from the body, than a person in the hospital truly wishes to encounter. The other, while it did not involve violence of any kind, could have benefited from a little; it was a history of art thefts in Europe, and it was just boring as all get-out.

In the end, I borrowed a copy of US magazine from one of the nurses – and can now tell you lots of scandalous stories about Pippa Middleton – and the following day, I swiped my roommate’s copy of Little Dorrit. And eventually they let me go home, where I pounced on a copy of Daniel Stashower’s charming Elephants in the Distance, which defines the “intelligent cozy,” contains lots of fascinating arcana about the world of professional magicians, and is published by your favorite mystery press.

People expecting to get married often “register” at stores for items they wish to own, in the hope and anticipation that friends will give them these items. I do not particularly expect to go back into the hospital, but – as they say in the ads for the New York Lottery – hey, you never know. So in the manner of a blushing bride-to-be, and in the hope and anticipation that friends will send a little reading matter my way, here are some titles, off the top of my head, that I would love to reread if and when I find myself again stuck at New York Hospital:

Tropic of Night, by Michael Gruber
Past Caring, by Robert Goddard
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
Booked to Die, by John Dunning
The Romeo Flag, by Caroline Hougan

Rereading? Yes. Hospitals are scary places, and I would welcome a familiar voice. Plus which, every new book is something of a crapshoot, and hospitals, it seems to me, are no place to gamble. I know these books would make me happy.

So there’s the set-up: You’re about to go into the hospital for a week. You are not in danger of dying, and there’s no serious pain, but you are looking forward to seven days of tedium, bad food, and needles. What books do you bring with you to lighten the load?


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