“Oh, that’s my comfort read!”
I think it’s safe to say that everybody knows what is meant—the books we turn to for rereads, always knowing exactly what we’ll get. The anticipation of the expected comfort—the lack of surprise—is part of the appeal.
Where disagreement comes in is what makes a comfort read.
Years ago, someone insisted that The Accidental Tourist was the perfect comfort read. I picked it up to help get over the gloom caused by my eldest going off to a distant school. So what happens? In the very first chapter, the couple’s teen is senselessly murdered. That was so not what I wanted to read at that time! I skimmed ahead to find that the guy goes off to find a quirky woman who will rescue him. Will anyone rescue the mother? No, the guy is the center of the story. I took the book back to the library the next day, unfinished. Yet that was somebody else’s perfect comfort book.
I’ve seen several statements that no first read can be a comfort read. I get the thinking behind that—you don’t know what will happen, therefore no comfortable anticipation. And yet I don’t find that to be true. P.G. Wodehouse’s books are the chief ones I’ve actually saved for a first read when I wanted a new comfort book. I could always trust Wodehouse to stay inside the delicately constructed boundary of charm and emotional safety that he was so brilliant at constructing.
How does a comfort book work, given how very different our ideal comfort book can be? The way I see it is, the world of the book has to fit around you so you love being there, you love the people, you love the way life works in that book as well as what happens. It’s like walking into a house you are fond of visiting, and though you know that the furniture never changes, and you’ll be offered the same refreshments as always, and the conversation will run along familiar channels, that’s part of the charm.
But sometimes that changes. You find you’re too busy for a revisit, and when you do, you can’t help noticing the peeling paint around the windows, the sadly shabby couch and scratched tables; the tea is lukewarm and the scones a bit stale. As for the conversation, you find your mind wandering at times, and when you leave, you can’t help a sigh of relief, maybe a guilty one because you know you ought to love going there—the house and characters and talk have been loyal friends for so long. You find yourself going back only in memory.
My favorite comfort reads are the ones that never go stale: each visit I notice something new. Why wasn’t I aware of the subtle but compelling pattern of embroidery on that pillow? Is there a hint of cinnamon in these scones, is that why they taste so good? And the tea, it has to be first flush tips, no hint of pesticides, which gives it that distinctive flavor. The conversation is full of hidden jokes and insight. I’ll be back, I think on leaving.
Some of my comfort reads are revisited more often than others, and some of my rereads are not comfort books. Jane Austen’s works are both rereads and comfort books. Lord of the Rings gets a reread every five to ten years, but it’s not a comfort book; the ending is too powerfully poignant for that. My longest running comfort read is D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book, which I note is getting a new edition–finding it used is difficult. My copy is a rapidly decaying first edition, its production clearly not aimed for keeper shelves. And yet most of those I know who’ve read it hang onto their copies.
Re Jane Austen, rereading, and comfort reads, the best essay I’ve found is in Patricka Meyer Spacks’ book On Rereading. The essay was pleasurable precisely because she, too, has reread those books too many times to count, yet discovers new bits. Her references are those of one who is intimately familiar with all the books.
Many of my childhood and teen comfort reads have slid into fond memories, like Enid Blyton’s Adventure books. But some still work in certain moods, even if not as intensely as they had, like Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, The Joyous Season, which got me through parental tough times, and Genius, whose chief charm was the Do It Yourself Film project. I did a lot of home-made stage projects (and one or two films) when I was young, always on a budget of $0.00. But now I’m straying into reminiscence, the curse of old people, so it’s time to close.
So! What’s your comfort read and why?