Comfort Reading

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3One day last week The Guardian ran an article about comfort reading: the literary equivalent of diving for the cake tin at those moments when it seems as if the world is against you and nothing other than sheer indulgence will banish the horrors and restore your sense of equilibrium.  I’m sure we all know about both of these phenomena, if for no other reason than that the two very often go hand in hand.  What better way to cock a snook at the unfairness of the world than with a good book accompanied by a very large slice of cake?  And if it can be accompanied by a welcoming pot of tea all the better.

The comments that the article provoked, each with the writers’ own list of comfort reads, were fascinating, not the least for the number of times that the Harry Potter books appeared.  When we are in need of consolation many of us, it seems, go back to our childhood reading, reminders perhaps of that period in our lives when we could retreat from the unjust world without too many repercussions.

One of the items in the list made by a reader with the pseudonym ShutUpBanks, was all of Helene Hanff and this made me realise that I actually have two different sorts of comfort read.  When I am not well I automatically reach for 84 Charing Cross Road.   In fact, if you ever see me reading Hanff’s first exploration of her love affair with London and it’s secondhand book trade you should probably give me a wide berth because the chances are that I am seriously infectious.

However, when it’s just a ‘the world doesn’t like me and what’s more I’m not particularly fond of it either’ type of comfort I’m looking for then worryingly the first thing I’m going to pick up is a crime novel – hardly likely to make me feel better about society, you would have thought, immersing myself in the worst that it has to throw at me and exposing myself to the sort of unspeakable crimes that you’re likely to find in modern police procedurals.  Or, perhaps it is that seeing just how bad other people’s lot can be eventually reconciles me to my own.  After all, neither victim nor perpetrator is likely to find themselves treated to a comforting slice of cake and a pot of the best leaf tea going, are they?  What do you think?

35 thoughts on “Comfort Reading

  1. 🙂 I go for crime when real life is becoming hideous too. I think it may be that if things seem out of control, it’s comforting to have a superhuman detective putting the world to rights…

    1. I hadn’t thought about that Karen, but you’re right it is definitely comforting to think that somewhere someone has got a grip on things.

  2. I’d reach for something along the lines of Maggie O’Farrell – well written but reasonably undemanding. I like the idea of diving for the cake tin, though, literary or otherwise.

      1. Well, I go for something that is as close to a sure thing as possible, but I guess what I am saying is, that I’m not a rereader, so even my favourite books aren’t going to be a comfort as I don’t get the same pleasure from rereading. And I ask for recommendations from very trusted sources! It hasn’t failed me yet 😉

  3. Depending on my mood I go for vintage crime, Agatha Christie etc al or something cosy from around that era. Richmal Crompton, D E Stevenson Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell . 1930’s froth is oddly comforting and not quite as banal as modern froth I don’t think.

    1. I can see the attraction of going back to a time when things were slower and less likely to be pressured, Ali. I must try some Christie myself next time I am in need.

  4. I think in a crime novel you probably find the good, the cop that strives to find out what happened or the satisfying conclusion that all ends as it should do no matter how bad things got.

    I don’t tend to reread as I have too many books to read on a first time basis but my mood does dictate what I pick up. In the mood you describe lastly, I think I tend to go for a feel good, easy read, YA.

    1. Yes, I would quite often go for YA as well, Rebecca. Have you read Jane Casey’s trilogy of crime fiction for teenagers which began with How To Fall? If not, I can strongly recommend them.

  5. I nearly always go for crime if I want comfort reading. I think it’s to do with being presented with an apparently insoluble puzzle and having it satisfactorily worked out in front of your eyes. I also love childhood books for comfort and have often re-read the really old ones — E Nesbitt, F Hodgson Burnett etc. Never read Helen Hanff, though!

    1. Harriet, you have to read Hanff. I think you would really appreciate her straight down the line take on life and you couldn’t fail to warm to her love of books.

  6. In time of crisis I’d go for Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, because my little grey cells need the distraction of a theoretical problem, otherwise Lord of the Ring is my comfort read.

    1. Yes, I sometimes turn to fantasy, Smithereens, although in my case it’s more likely to be Robin Hobb or Katharine Kerr. Every year I was lecturing I would have at least one student who wanted to write their dissertation on Tolkien and there are only so many times you can read The Lord of the Rings.

      1. Are there? I haven’t reached that maximum limit just yet, although I go re-read my favorite moments, not the whole trilogy… (that would set me back for another 3 months!)

    1. The Jess Tennant books, which are the YA ones, are excellent, Marylou, but even better are her Maeve Kerrigan novels for adults. If you don’t know them then you have a real treat in store.

  7. My comfort reading is usually books about books. Elizabeth von Arnim and Barbara Pym also fill the niche very nicely. Though sometimes I admit that a page-turning sci-fi novel with lots of explosions is just the ticket 🙂

    1. Well, hence the Hanff when I’m feeling ill, Stefanie. And you’re right about von Arnim, The Enchanted April would definitely fit the bill.

  8. I definitely go for the familiar when I need comfort. Like you, I find 84 Charing Cross Road very reliable! But I also like Anne Tyler, especially ‘Ladder of Years,’ or some of the early Joanna Trollopes. I don’t like really dark crime if I’m in a slump, but Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker have stood by my during many stressful periods. In fact, I have fallen into a bit of a Spenser revival in the last few weeks as I wade through some hard stuff at work. The pithiness plus the extremely satisfying resolutions is just right.

    1. I’m with you on the early Trollope, Rohan and also the Francis, but I’d never come across Robert B Parker. I’ve just checked out his bibliography and there are dozens of books in the Spenser series and if you recommend them then that is good enough for me. I just hope I can find them available in the UK.

  9. What struck me in the choices listed in that article is that my definition of cosy reading is a universe away from some of those contributors. Shakespeare would be far too challenging and oh my gosh are they serious in choosing Woolf?? Crime fiction is a good option for me because even though bad things happen in the book, I know they are not going to happen to me. But I’m equally likely to dig out the every-trusted Miss Austen.

    1. I can relate to that turning to crime fiction for, I don’t know if comfort is really the word, an easyish read. Plot driven, strong on atmosphere crime fiction can get me through stressful periods. The problem is that I can get rather tired of them if I read too many at a go. Wodehouse is rather good as a comfort read because of that wonderful lightness.

    2. I might ‘just’ pick up a Shakespeare but you’re right about Woolf, definitely not top of my comfort list. As for Austen, it would depend which one. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ quite possibly, but ‘Emma’ never.

  10. Whether I’m cross or sad, I tend to want the books from my childhood, where it’s groups of plucky orphans or half orphans, doing adventures and being brave and plucky. Occasionally I do like an Agatha Christie novel, just for the structure and the detectives achieving justice. But mostly the orphans things. :p

    1. You know the ending is going to be triumphant, don’t you, Jenny and that is so often what you want. It’s a foul day here today and a good dose of ‘Ballet Shoes’ might well be just what I need to counteract the appalling weather.

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