Reading can be the escape needed to help distract, heal after surgery

Posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 6:58 p.m.

When life is so overscheduled that it takes being scheduled for surgery to win some leisure time, it may seem like a sad situation. But the Pollyanna in me says, “Perhaps there are some things to be glad about in this. What might they be?”

First of all, of course, is the knowledge that the surgery type is relatively routine and the doctor has a fine reputation. Next, it’s easy to be grateful for the man who will take care of my 80-year-old mother and for the friend who will house me after the operation. One can also be glad for the timing, which allows for snuggling in during February and recovering in time for the advent of spring.

Beyond that, there’s one more thing that takes the edge off of the necessity for surgery: the opportunity to read to my heart’s content. Whenever I want to distract myself from worry about entering that operating room, I make myself think instead about entering a library, where I can choose anything I wish — to entertain, amuse, and divert me from thoughts of surgery and recovery.

“The library is my oyster!” I exclaim. “Should I read a dozen slim volumes? Or should I select one great, thick tome?” The answer seems simple. When I consider how rare is the occasion to read day after day, the massive volume is victor, hands down.

But then, more questions arise. Should I take the opportunity to be better informed? Should I select a big biography or a substantial historical tome? Somehow, plowing through such material sounds too much like labor. Reading for recovery is an experience custom-made for escape, so a grand 19th-century novel seems just the ticket to transport me somewhere else.

But with so many to choose from, how should I decide which one to select? Opening lines are useful at this juncture.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” seems almost too apt for a time when the joy of reading might be accompanied by some physical pain. Set that one aside.

The opening line of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” seemed unfortunate, too. The sentence “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seemed to be thrown into relief by poor dress,” only uncomfortably calls to mind the image of a patient in a hospital gown. Toss that one.

“It was a dark and stormy night: the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” This complicatedly punctuated opener from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, “Paul Clifford,” is too fraught — and hackneyed, to boot — to offer any promise of relaxation.

Where was the open, expansive reading experience, the one that would take me out of the sickroom from line one? I found it at last in “The Return of the Native,” by Thomas Hardy: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.” Read on and find a small figure in that huge landscape. Join him there. Enter another world.

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