With all that’s been going on in the world lately, I’ve been turning to comfort books more and more as a way to check out of reality – if even for a little while – and into a world where everything is guaranteed to come out right in the end. Almost three years ago, on March 14, 2014, I published the following post about comfort reading, and it occurred to me that it might be a timely topic once again. So I’m dusting it off, and presenting it here in case you missed it the first time:
Any voracious reader could probably name multiple reasons why they love to sink into a book. There are many things I love about reading, and I’ve pondered why I read in the past. In that post, one of the reasons I named was “escapism.” When I hit a rough patch, as we all do from time to time, books invariably make up an important part of the process of getting through the hard times. Just the act of reading itself is comforting. It’s a familiar ritual for me: choose a book, curl up under a blanket, sip tea and get lost in a story. Of course, I don’t do all of my reading on the couch at home. I carried a book with me to the NICU every day – to read in the car, the pump room, or during downtime while Peanut snoozed in her isolette. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d treated a book like a security blanket. I had many rough days during which I found comfort in reaching into my tote bag, grasping the book du jour and thinking about how I’d have some time to lose myself in the pages later.
Since then, through long newborn days, planning and carrying out a move across several states, and job-hunting, I have thought a lot about comfort reading, both in terms of the practice of reading itself and in terms of the type of books I select during the dark times. Not only is the act of reading comforting to me, in and of itself, but the choice of book can bring some added comfort, too. I noticed that “comfort books” fell into three categories for me:
These are soft, quiet books in which it may seem as though nothing much is happening, but the beauty of the words themselves and the characters’ steady progress through the story is comforting. In September of 2012, I slipped back into the gentle world of Fairacre, reading Storm in the Village during my pumping sessions in the NICU. It’s not as though there was no conflict – indeed, the entire premise of the book is that an atomic energy company wants to mar the beauty of the natural landscape around Fairacre by erecting a housing estate, a terrible concept! But Fairacre is a quiet place with familiar, well-loved characters and it made me feel better to spend some time there.
I also revisited an old favorite from my childhood. In order to bring Peanut comfort while she was trapped in an isolette, I spent hours reading to her out loud from Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, which was my favorite book as a young reader. (You may notice the title and wonder if Peanut’s name is a coincidence. It’s not.) Of course, Peanut doesn’t understand the language or concepts in Emily of New Moon, so for her the comfort lay more in hearing my voice. But I won’t lie and pretend that reading a childhood favorite wasn’t good for me, too.
I visited Fairacre many times during the months we were debating pulling up stakes and moving to Buffalo. And some of the final books in the Fairacre series happened to also be my final books borrowed from my favorite library. That’s not a coincidence: although I knew that moving to Buffalo was going to be a good thing for our family, it wasn’t easy to uproot our entire life in Virginia. Miss Read, Miss Clare and the rest of the Fairacre village folk (yes, even the caustic Mrs. Pringle!) made the transition somewhat smoother for me.
In addition to the gentle reads, I also need a laugh when I’m feeling down. I found that in Freddy and Fredericka, a sweet but funny and slightly inappropriate tale about a hapless Prince and Princess of Wales who are dropped from a plane over New Jersey with a mission to prove their fitness to rule by re-conquering the United States. Much of the humor lies in word-play and silly images, both of which resonate with me as a reader. I spent hours laughing over Freddy and Fredericka in the mothers’ lounge and on the car rides to and from the hospital when Peanut was in the NICU, and it did make me feel significantly better.
Even before the NICU days, I’ve turned to humor to get me through rough patches. Specifically, P.G. Wodehouse’s bumbling aristocrat, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, and his brilliant valet Jeeves, have given me plenty of laughs when I was stressed out over work or travel. Watching hapless Bertie get engaged to a string of terrifying women, only to be rescued over and over by Jeeves, is a sure cure for any anxiety. (And you’ll certainly ponder whether you’re really under stress when you contemplate the horrors of an engagement to Lady Florence Craye.)
I’ve been a fan of mystery novels since I picked up my first Agatha Christie, back in middle school. And I think they’re perfect comfort reading when you’re feeling a little bit buffeted by the world. Sure, the premises of these books can be a bit gruesome – you’re bound to encounter a dead body, sometimes more than one, along the way – but the thing about cozy mysteries is that they’re pretty much guaranteed to end well. You can rest assured that the sleuth – be it Miss Marple, Flavia de Luce, Maisy Dobbs, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Precious Ramotswe or one of countless others – will solve the mystery in the end.
And there are often other storylines, especially in the more recently written mysteries (Dame Agatha wasn’t big on this, but her successors often are) that focus more on the sleuths and their supporting castmates – their relationships, dreams, goals, what-have-you – than on whodunit. Will Mma Ramotswe get together with the kindly garage owner, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni? Will Maisy find happiness with James? (Still waiting for the final word on this one. C’mon Maisy, don’t be stupid! James loves you!) Will Flavia ever make peace with her ghastly older sisters? You’ll have to come back for the sequels to find out, but the beauty of these series is that these stories often work out just as neatly as the mysteries our heroes and heroines solve. Sometimes it takes awhile, but that just makes the conclusion more satisfying when it inevitably comes. But even when the personal results aren’t quite as neat and tidy, you can at least count on a wrap-up where everything makes sense, the bad guys are caught and the good guys debrief over a cup of tea (or something stronger). It’s nice to be able to count on that.
When you’re feeling down, do you turn to books for comfort? Which ones?
P.S. 2017 Jac here again – check back next week for some new comfort reading recommendations – books and authors that have come onto my shelves in the last few years, or that weren’t mentioned in this post. If you’re looking for books to block out the noise of the world, I’ve got you covered!