Comfort Reading in Fifth Week

Fifth Week is a notorious week in the Oxford term (8 weeks long), known for ‘fifth week blues’ and the need for some well-earned rest. Things often feel particularly challenging in Michaelmas (first) term, as everything gets colder and darker. But all is not lost! The shorter evenings offer the perfect excuse to get home and curl up in the warm with a book. Here, some of our Graduate Trainee Librarians offer their favourite reads for a bit of comfort and escapism during fifth week…

A man with an impressive hat and moustache stands on one side of a wall, as 8 cats dance and climb their way up a ladder to him.
Title page: T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (Faber and Faber Limited)

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (T.S. Eliot)

In the midst of my undergraduate degree, I struggled to find the time and motivation to sit down and read a novel. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a wonderful alternative: T S Eliot provides short, witty poems about different feline characters. You can dip in and out of different poems, and will inevitably find yourself swept up in each of their wonderful worlds. My personal favourite is ‘Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’: with its bouncing metre and quick pace, you feel as if you are on a chugging train. I first read the poems in my early teens, drawn in by the book’s slim size and the myriad of cats on the cover. It is an undeniably comforting, joyous respite which you can revisit at any time. On rainy November days, when Oxford’s cats are curled up inside, turn to Old Possum’s Book to get your feline fix.

Izzie Salter, Sackler Library


14,000 Things to be Happy About (Barbara Ann Kipfer) 

This is not a book I would recommend reading cover to cover as it actually is a list of 14000 things to be happy about, just like it says on the tin! However, it is perfect to dip in to and find a thought to brighten your day! It provides a reminder that normal, everyday, sometimes functional things can make us happy or at least grateful. For example, SatNav, Google, the smell of a coffee can opening, eight-foot-long scarves or putting things back where they were found (very appropriate for us trainees who find great satisfaction in reshelving books!). Some are very random or abstract such as strawberry flavoured milk, isosceles trapezoids or making a beeline. Others are just excellent words like clodhoppers and inglenook (a corner by a fireplace). Some are poetic reminders of beautiful things and others remind you of wonderful things like going home and picking the right lane for once in a traffic jam!

The book is hidden in the Lower Gladstone Link as part of Mr Po Chung’s Personal Development Collection, so take a look, hopefully you’ll find something there that will help to make you smile.

Emily Main, Radcliffe Camera


Classic Scrapes (James Acaster) 

If you’re a fan of James Acaster’s comedy, his podcast (Off Menu with Ed Gamble), or his appearances on Taskmaster and Would I Lie to You?, I cannot recommend this book enough! And if you’re not, I am still confident that this book is funny and daft enough to elicit at least a smile. This book is a collection of Acaster’s most random, embarrassing and hilarious moments, from hiding from thugs in a bush whilst wearing a red dress for warmthto disappointing his sky-diving instructor mid-flight. Featuring illustrations from Acaster himself, this book is the kind of daft, silly read I love when I’m feeling down. He’s a great storyteller and really brings some of these bizarre and unexpected moments to lifemaking me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. 

Lucy Davies, Social Sciences Library


Book cover: Donna Tartt's The Secret History
Book cover: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

The Secret History                   (Donna Tartt)

If, like me, you aspire to ponder over books, manuscripts, pictures and anything remotely old and dusty, then this book is perfect for you! Set in an “elite New England college” it follows protagonist Richard whose downfall is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” … hmm, sounds familiar – I think we have all been guilty of romanticising academia at some point, especially us librarians! We follow Richard as he enters the world of classics and becomes embroiled in a group of conceited, entitled and eccentric undergraduate classicists. The story that unfolds involves murder, Dionysian madness and a lot of brilliant description of New England culture, academia and what it means to read a humanities degree. I would definitely recommend it. 

Ben Elliott, Pembroke College Library


The Liar’s Dictionary (Eley Williams) 

As a habitual reader of weighty paperbacks, I often look at my large stack of unread books with dread when I’m in a busy (or rather, busier than usual) patch. The Liar’s Dictionary was a book I’d had my eye on for some time when I spotted it shining at me from the window of an Oxfam bookstore. Pleasingly short at a little over 250 pages, this book is one to revitalise your love of language when you’re midway through an essay, you’ve written what you feel to be the worst paragraph in history (it’s almost undoubtedly not – and if it is you may want to try your hand at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest) and you’re wondering quite what the point is. Whilst I can’t confirm this has the same effect on problem sheets, this is a wonderful, light-hearted book about words and – if you have the mental energy – also has some questions to ponder about the language we use and how it shapes the world around us. 

Jess Ward, Law Faculty Library


The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien)

The Hobbit, while technically a children’s book, brings all kinds of unbridled joy to the adult reader. Though this spellbinding story is hardly a secret, it is a comforting tale that I believe is well worth visiting or revisiting while walking the streets and university buildings that Tolkien once walked himself.  For me, the most reassuring presence in the story is found in the hapless protagonist. Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable and contented Hobbit from The Hill, is dragged into a quest to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their ancestral home from the clutches of a dragon. His reluctance to leave his hobbit-hole and his uncertainty in himself and his abilities make his venture into the wonderful wilds that bit more satisfying. Bilbo is not a brave adventurer; in fact, he’s anxious, homesick, and often miserable… but he does his best – and along the way discovers qualities that he never knew he possessed.

This, I believe, is what delights me most about this book as an adult: the palpable sense of anxiety and the triumph over it. Well… that and a queer interpretation of the ending – but that is a topic for another day.

Sophie Lay, English Faculty Library
The Hobbit, displayed on the shelf at the English Faculty Library
J.R.R Tolkein’s The Hobbit, displayed on the shelf at the English Faculty Library


The Clocks (Agatha Christie)

From the first time I picked up an Agatha Christie novel as a teenager, I was hooked. For me, they offer the ideal form of escapism: not only in the challenge and suspense of working out “who dunnit”, but in the way Christie brings her reader so wholly into the worlds she creates. In The Clocks, the centre of this world is the genteel, quiet street of Wilbraham Crescent, where an unknown man is found dead in the living room of number 19. There is something so artful in Christie’s drawing of place and character that the murder itself becomes almost secondary to the web of relationships and personalities – of people and spaces – which make up this book. Witness interviews are vignettes of 1960s family: the long-suffering Mrs Ramsay and her irrepressible sons, Mr McNaughton and his love of compost, Mrs Bland and her (very much) enjoyed frailty. And, of course, the presence of Hercule Poirot in any story is always a delight. The true testament to The Clocks is that I have read it more times than I can count – which shouldn’t work for detective fictionI highly recommend it as a quick read which combines suspense, dry humour, spies, romance, perceptive social observation… and a murder, of course.  

Heather Barr, St Edmund Hall Library


Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Wendy Cope) 

To be honest, more reading can be the last thing I want to do when I’m already feeling overwhelmedWendy Cope tends to feel like a safe option: short, sharp-witted poems that feel a bit like inside jokes. Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis has some gems – ever wondered how The Waste Land would read in limerick form?  and can be found online via SOLO, but even that can feel like a lot if you’re in the absolute pits of it. Maybe just look up ‘The Orange.’ Go for a walk. Try to remember that things will probably be fine. 

Josie Fairley Keast, Law Faculty Library


Lizzie, in period Regency dress, looks demurely over her shoulder as she stands in a beautifully grand hallway.
This is a photo from a few years ago when I took part in the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, where the novel is set. Also, I paid a visit to Lyme Regis and jumped – carefully – off the infamous steps on the Cobb which are the setting of the climactic scene in the book.

Persuasion (Jane Austen) 

My comfort is often escapism; fantasy, historical fantasy, or historical fiction are my go-tos. However, the book to which I return at least every year is Persuasion. Like many, I first read Jane Austen’s novels when I was in my teens, but I still find more every time I reread. She is the finest writer for her use of language: the closer I read, the more amazing I find her work. Her language creates an intricate, layered and fascinating world of manners, class, and moral decisions — and it is funny too.

Other readers over the centuries have likewise turned to Austen in stressful or dark times. Winston Churchill read Austen during the Second World War and admired her work as an escape when he was ill with pneumonia: “What calm lives they had, those people!” he wrote, “No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”

Austen’s characters are funny and complex, and she is such a great observer of character. Humour is the best for cheering oneself up and, always, I love to laugh at a snob – they are the funniest characters to read in a novel of manners – and Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is one of the finest, and silliest.

Austen went through dark times too and I believe it is wrong to say her work is unaffected by the wars that continued throughout her lifetime. Her worlds offer much-needed stability and order. She wondered if Pride and Prejudice was “too light and bright and sparkling”, but sometimes that is needed. Conversely, Austen completed Persuasion whilst she was dying. It was published posthumously and thus it is one of the least polished of her works; it is less “bright and sparkling” but a poignant and moving story of two people reuniting after years apart. It examines disappointment, heartbreak, and regret; but, most of all, it offers hope.

Lizzie Dawson, All Souls College Library

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