I was sick at home with the flu the other day when my daughter brought me her copy of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs to read. The story opens with Moominpappa himself sick in bed, acting like a baby, afraid he’s going to die and that all the treasures of his life experience will be lost. So he sits up and begins writing his memoirs while sipping a rum toddy and smoking his pipe. Moominpappa has romantic notions about himself. He was born, he says, under propitious stars. Though an orphan, he suspects he is a child of royalty. He admits to making slight embellishments in recounting his life story, but only for the sake of providing “local color.”
Is there such thing as a Protestant Sick Ethic? I feel like a cheat when I read while sick in bed. If I’m reading and hear my wife (a responsible person) walking down the hall toward the bedroom, I’ll drop my book on the floor or hide it under the covers. Not that my wife would scold me for reading, but I can’t avoid scolding myself if I’m caught. If you’re so sick and miserable, I tell myself, then be sick and miserable all the way. Surely, if you’re well enough to enjoy a book, you can’t be that sick, can you? Probably you’re just lazy. If I were more adventurous, like Moominpappa, I might not care. I might read in bed all day long, every day of my convalescence, and never feel guilty about it at all.
Being ordered to read by my daughter simplifies things. I’m only humoring her, putting on a good show of fatherly indulgence despite the fact that I’m suffering. But I wonder if reading while sick in bed may actually be therapeutic. A good book expands our scope of life, and even a minor illness like seasonal flu can feel restrictive. Reading is a form of experience, and if the world as we experience it in a book isn’t quite the same thing as the world at large, sometimes it’s close enough. Facing a storm at sea, Moominpappa asks his friend Hodgkins if he’s ever been in a gale before. “Certainly,” Hodgkins says. “In the picture book A Voyage over the Ocean. No waves can be bigger than those.”