Comfort Reads

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

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.

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, Annamarie Selinko’s Desiree, and Kipling’s Stalky & Co.. 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?

Sherwood Smith’s BVC ebooks (which she hopes one or two might someday be somebody’s comfort read)

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Comfort Reads — 64 Comments

  1. I suppose my favourite comfort read is Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Rampant because it never fails to give me the feeing that everything is possible and one has one’s life firmly in one’s own hand.

  2. Thank you for pointing out a lovely reason why I keep books around. 🙂

    My comfort reads tend to be fantasy as I love leaving this world for some other places. One of my favorite haunts is “A Wind in Cairo” by Judith Tarr, even though I’m not quite leaving Earth with this one. I must have read it over a dozen times, and I still find new moments in it.

    One of my first read comfort books, on the other hand, was “Airs Beneath the Moon”, by Toby Bishop. It’s not really deep and mostly a simple adventure tale, but it has winged horses … and well, horses always make my day. So I revisit those from time to time to refresh the wonder.

  3. Pride and Prejudice is the first book that comes to mind when I think of my comfort books. Whenever I had just completed another year of college, I’d return home to California, and first chance I’d get, it was off to the beach with the barest of necessities–a towel, a water bottle, my Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, and Pride and Prejudice. I still take time to re-visit this old friend on a regular basis.

    Other books that have become comfort books to me now include Crown Duel and Court Duel, Edenbrooke, and Alexander McCall’s series, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency to name but a very few.

  4. Like many others I find a good reread comforting. For first time reads I look for a cozy mystery by an author I can trust not to go icky on me.
    I’ve had that experience so often that one person’s comfort read is another person’s poison and have learned to say “no” apologetically but firmly.

  5. My comfort reads tend to be books I discovered from ages 11-13: The Rose of the Prophet trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, and just about anything by Patricia Beatty (she mostly wrote middle grade historical fiction). I also reread my favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books every few years.

    • It’s interesting how books we discovered as youth can remain comfort books all our lives. We read so intensely at that age, and so very much is new.

      • Pretty much all of my comfort books are from childhood/teen years, so I agree. Any of Diana Wynne Jones’ books are comfort reads to me because I’ve read them so often since childhood, and it’s exactly as you’ve described — the scenery’s always the same, but maybe you’ve updated your glasses prescription. It’s comforting, like going on holiday to a familiar spot.

        There are books that I’ve discovered as an adult too, but more of them are rereads than comfort reads. I think possibly the closest would be Melina Marchetta’s books (except her attempts at fantasy), and they’re aimed at young adults even though I only found them after university. Maybe in another 5-10 years some of my current rereads will be comfort reads. Who knows.

  6. Mysteries have always been my comfort read and re-read of choice. Even a new book can be a comfort book if it’s part of a series of mysteries about a particular detective, because I know the character and know I will get to watch him or her develop. And while other people I care about may get killed, the detective will still be around at the end of the book.

    Lately I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books and I find them particularly good comfort food. I read most of them when I was a kid (my mother was a big fan), but remember very little, so the stories are both familiar and fresh.

    • Several people have talked about how mysteries are comfort reads. (My mom, for one. She gets into these heavy duty police procedurals that I find totally off-putting, but she loves to curl up in bed with them. But she never rereads them.)

  7. I have had quite a few comfort books over the years: The Hobbit, Watership Down, Jane Eyre, Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, The Chronicles of Narnia, Ella Enchanted, Pride and Prejudice. I have also found comfort authors who I love to revisit and know that I can trust anything new they publish or somehing of theirs I have yet to read: Jane Austin, Shannon Hale, Diana Wynne Jones, Orson Scott Card, Gail Carson Levine, Eoin Colfer, Kennith Oppel just to name a few. Most recently I joyfully discovered Sherwood Smith’s wonderful books. 🙂 Crown and Court duel quickly became favorites and I am now slowly working my way through all the rest of your works. My book club is reading Crown Duel this July. I can see it becoming a regular on my summer comfort read list.

  8. Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books are probably my longest running comfort reads. Probably because a lot of Diana Wynne Jone’s books and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet were discovered around the same age, back in the dark ages before you could actually expect to order in print books at any book store.

      • Yeah, tho for a while I was sure I’d never get another one because they were so hard to find. I think a lot of the joy of those books for me is the main characters like to read and are shown liking to read, and it feels familiar. It’s not something I see often in fiction.

        That isn’t all my comfort read list, by a long shot. I think the newest addition to the comfort read list is Jane Austen… About 7 years ago, I had an absolutely horrible year where a good friend died, and then a cousin committed suicide. Looking back on that year, it feels like all I read is Jane Austen, over and over and over (I didn’t actually, but it was some ridiculous number of rereads in one year). Before that year, I just bounced off her stuff like it was a brick wall. After, somehow I could see the humor and not just the surface.

        I’d be really sad if the list didn’t get broader and weirder as I get older.

  9. Thank you for reminding me of _Miss Buncle’s Book_. *That’s* pre-ordered.

    I often reach for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day when I need a comfort read. I like the dialogue, the comedy, the odds, and the “ahh” feeling that you get when everything comes out satisfactorily in the end.

    I also like Topper, for many of the same reasons I like Miss Pettigrew.

    Hellspark is another comfort read; and The War for the Oaks. And again, it’s dialogue, wit, and a satisfying wrap-up (yes, I’m predictable), with an added layer of adventure.

  10. Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series; Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; George Eliot’s Middlemarch for fiction.

    Non-fiction comforts include Basil Davidson, Robert Farris Thompson, Fernand Braudel, Richard Slotkin — and a new one! Henry Adams’s History of the United States of America! I always find new things in these works, no matter how much I’ve learned since the last time ’round.

    • Middlemarch is one of my regular rereads, but it’s not a comfort read. I find Braudel a little dated, now, though eminently exciting in the seventies. I wonder, have you tried Patrick Leigh Fermor, specifically A Time of Gifts?

      • Um, read all his books back in the early 90’s.

        Braudel, dated? You mean those who say the Atlantic World dynamic subsumed his Mediterranean outlook, and now say the Atlantic is also subsumed in terms of looking globally at history, i.e. the Columbian Exchange and the exogenetic transfer?

        I don’t know. When it comes to describing in the mundane world of the European population how commercial and market systems in these regions built the foundations for capitalism, his work remains spot on.

        Love, C.

  11. I’ve just been thinking about comfort reads, actually, because we’re in the midst of major home projects and the upheaval is driving me batty. I love leaning back against my pillows with a beloved, comforting read to make me forget the stress of the day. My comfort reads change depending on what the circumstances are, but right now I’m turning with profound relief to Mary Stewart: THORNYHOLD and ROSE COTTAGE, particularly. And A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth Bunce, KETURAH AND LORD DEATH by Martine Leavitt, and – oddly enough – anything by Zane Grey. 🙂

    • Hey, if it works, it works! Those are two Mary Stewarts I don’t think I’ve read–and I thought I’d read all hers ages ago! (Madam Will You Talk is an old favorite.)

      • Thornyhold and Rose Cottage are two of Stewart’s most recent books, after she’d almost stopped writing. Not my very favorites, but well worth tracking down if you haven’t read them yet.

        Comfort reads not mentioned yet include Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow mysteries, and all the rest of D.E. Stevenson’s and Mary Stewart’s books.

  12. I have different comfort reads depending on what sort of comfort I’m seeking, I think. I’m in the process of re-reading Sense and Sensibility (I bought the complete Austen and the complete works of the sisters Brontë for $.99 each, and am doling them out as needed) right now. Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter mysteries, and Laurie King’s Holmes/Russell books (particularly the first two), all of Dick Francis’s mysteries–all comfort. And, weirdly, The Name of the Rose and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are both comfort reads for me–because of the narrator’s voice, and because I keep finding stuff tucked away in them that I’d never found before.

    In fact, I think one of the things that unifies all these books is that while I know them all well, I still keep finding things. Maybe it’s the fact that my brain still works that I find comforting?

  13. Georgette Heyer and PG Wodehouse have gotten me through some of the worst periods of my life – I’ve turned to them for comfort when I really needed comfort most. I feel such gratitude to the authors who’ve offered that. I also think of my grandma, who felt such deep gratitude to Ellis Peters for her Brother Cadfael mysteries, for exactly the same reason – she talked later in life about how much she wished she could have told Ellis Peters how much those books had meant to her at a terrible time.

    And I’ve just ordered Miss Buncle’s Book through my library. Thank you!

  14. Ellen Kushner’s books. Swordspoint when I’m in the mood for romantic – those elegant love scenes between Richard and Alec! The Privilege of the Sword, the scenes with Katherine and Richard becoming comfortable with each other at Highcombe. TPOTS is the chicken pot pie of my library, always perfectly satisfying and comforting.

  15. I am not surprised that one person’s comfort read is disturbing for another. A comfort read is one that offers a balance of familiarity (you know it is going to be a comfort) but is well written enough to provide some depth (whether you are satisfied with giggling at a pun you giggled at before, satisfied with a new insight that you missed before, satisfied by recollecting an insight that you first gained decades ago, or whaterver).

    Me, I know I am running a fever when I decide that I really want to read Gaudy Night. But I can see why people would find a novel about murder, or a novel about marital love, or a novel about academic relationships exactly what they don’t want to read when they are seeking comfort in the face of the opposite of one of those things.

    Comfort reads may be like comfort eats – one might summarise that ‘high fat’ is a key component, or ‘food eaten in childhood’ – but there will always be someone who, when they’ve had a bad day will desire watercress with a passion, or, when they have a bad cold relax into a sigh, with the first bite of mango (er, that’s me – and I don’t think I ate mango as a child).

  16. As I read your post, I was reminded of reading a thread on Salon years ago in which someone said that they read Dick Francis for comfort. There was disbelief from others in the thread, some saying that his books were too formulaic for their taste, and the person replied that it was the formula that was comforting.

    I do like Dick Francis, but my ultimate comfort read is Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series. Old-fashioned British mystery qualify, too — Sayers, Allingham.

    I have two anti-comfort book experiences. I was carrying Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed when I went in for my annual checkup ten years ago. The doctor found a lump and sent me for an ultrasound. During the hour I spend waiting in the basement lab, I got thoroughly annoyed with McMurtry. I distinctly recall muttering something along the lines, of “Come on Larry, let up on the poor guy.” Fortunately, the the lump was benign.

    I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing when a friend’s surgery went south and he went into intensive care. I put it down and never picked it up again.

  17. I’m here due to a tweet by Vonda McIntyre. As I tweeted back to her: “My comfort reads are just about anything by Terry Prachett and (this is embarrassing) most things by J. A. Jance.”

    Someone (on Twitter) asked my why I would be embarrassed by Jance and I somewhat facetiously replied “Because Jance is ‘popular’ and I am insufficiently secure in my wannabe eliteness to admit I also read ‘popular’.”

    Still, it is easier to admit to loving Prachett, is it not? Like so many other things, I have a story about that . . .

    When my beloved wife was in the hospital, already in a coma she would recover from only briefly before the end, I couldn’t bring myself to leave even for a few moments. Some dear friends came by to sit with me for a while and, before leaving, asked if there was anything they could bring me. I asked them for ‘anything by Prachett’. What I got was ‘Going Postal’ and, even in those dire moments waiting for Anita’s last breath it sometimes made me smile.

    I will always be grateful to those friends (you know who you are) and to Sir Terry himself. You made a difficult time just a little more bearable…

    • Authors works hard on their books, so for their sake, I would say, rejoice in any book that is a comfort read. Who cares what critics think?

      I am very sorry you lost your dear wife, but I am glad that Terry Pratchett’s wonderful work was there to sustain you a little. Many of his books are old favorites of mine.

  18. Thank you for the D.E. Stevenson recommendation! How have I managed to live so long without reading her, given that my comfort reading is often Angela Thirkell. The titles of her novels hint at Gothic settings, but the plot descriptions sound like pure un-Gothic romance. Miss Buncle and its sequel seem to be among the few that are satiric rather than romantic.

    Another of my comfort reads is the American writer of “women’s fiction” (generally non-Gothic), Kathleen Norris. No, not the one currently alive and producing “inspirational” best-sellers.

      • Phew, where to start? Her fiction stretches from pre-WW I well into the 1940s; in her first novel, “Mother,” the heroine “lost her reputation” when she stayed out too late with a boy. By the last years, Norris was writing about wives, lovers, husbands, multiple divorces. . .
        But you could read them in any order, not just chronologically. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Norris
        does not give a complete listing! One they omit is (naturally) one of my favorites, Norris’s only excursion into the Gothic: Mystery House. It’s based on the Winchester Mystery House, though they change its location–it’s still the Bay Area. She lived in San Francisco most of her life.

  19. Comfort reads? I enjoy Pride and Prejudice, of course. Here Be Dragons and Katherine, because even if there are very powerful and poignant scenes which aren’t comfortable (such as Llewellyn bursting in on Joanna and William in the bedroom or the destruction of the Savoy Palace) you know that in the end, love will win out and they’ll be together until they die. Besides that… Once a Princess and Twice a Prince, I think. For much the same reasons – it feels like a combination of the books I mentioned above sometimes, with powerful scenes but also lots of wit and charm.

  20. My comfort reads would be the early Deverry books (probably because I stumbled on them as a teenager), especially Daggerspell; The Hobbit; and the chronicles of Narnia, in particular the Horse and his Boy, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    I’ve never thought of a comfort book as one that is being re-read, though. All of the above are constantly re-read. For me, my comfort books are those that produce a particular emotion and feeling. Which then starts to broadened my range of comfort books, to include your Crown Duel, Kate Elliot’s King’s Dragon and Juliet Marillier’s Son of the Shadow, (or any of her books) to name a few. Sometimes I get in a mood that I want to feel a certain way from my book, and whether I find it in a new novel or an old favourite, it still has that comfort vibe.

    • I think comfort books can map over onto reread books, though (for me) they do different things. But each person must interpret ‘comfort read’ or ‘reread’ as fits their own criteria!

  21. Many of mine have already been mentioned (Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Austen) but I’ve got a couple to add
    First, your Wren books, which I have reread regularly since the age of eight or so, and were especially good for me while I was recovering from appendicitis in my early teens.
    Second, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small and related books, which are just quietly charming.

  22. The Wind in the Willows which I was given at age 7 and haven”t stopped rereading. At different ages and states of mind I notice different things in it and can always get carried away by the sheer visualness of the writing. Also Three Men in a Boat, remarkable for gentle and bellylaughing humor that hasn’t dated in the century since its writing.

  23. Lots of Diana Wynne Jones love here, which is nice to see 🙂 My absolute favourite comfort read is Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones). Never fails to make me feel happy, enchanted and cosy. And as you say, every time you read a comfort book you notice something new.

  24. Definitely Tamora Pierce, just like everyone – particularly the first two Song of the Lioness books. But L.M. Montgomery is a big big comfort author for me, especially the Emily trilogy. My copies of those are just in tatters! I discovered Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy at exactly the right newly-teen age, and they were (weirdly enough, given how dark and intense they are) comfort reads and rereads and rerereads for me for years, though now I’m a little afraid to turn back to them.

    Two comfort authors, so to speak – whose new books I save until I need something to curl up with and comfort me – are Julia Quinn and Jennifer Crusie. I can count on them to make me laugh, and also to get all the dramatic bits just right – and of course they always resolve happily.

  25. The Hobbit is defintally a comfort read. Everytime I read it I’m transported back to my childhood when my parents read me the book for the first time.

    Other than that, Crown Duel is always my go to book when I just want to sit back and read, immersing myself in a familiar story. Then there is the Kensington Chronicles by Lori Wick, the Vampire Academy Series by Richelle Mead, and lately the Kingskiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss has been added to my list.