Tidings of Comfort

Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Note: I chose this painting because I liked it. It was only after I’d typed in the painter’s name (Louis Comfort Tiffany) that I realized I’d doubled up on the entendres. Pure serendipity.

With a to-be-read pile that stacks up to the sky and threatens my continued survival (it’s on my bedside table, and in an earthquake it would surely topple over and mash me flat) it perhaps makes no sense that I sometimes have to stop what I’m doing and start comfort reading. And it’s not always because I need comforting, in the “world is too much with me, gimme my blankie and my thumb and I’ll be in the corner” sense. So why?

Sometimes my mind is too full of Other Stuff™ to be able to fit in someone else’s new worlds and ideas. Sometimes there’s something in that much-read work that I recognize will help me unpick a writing problem of my own. Sometimes it’s just been a Day, and I want something reliably cheery, or chewy, or full of whatever quality I think I want in that moment. I was thinking about what books make my comfort reading list, and which, over the years, have slipped off it.

There are some books that I don’t expect ever to budge from the list, like Jane Eyre and all of Jane Austen (I’m a cliché, but I’m cool with it). There are some books I suspect will stay on the list: many of Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, about half of Laurie R. King’s Holmes and Russell books, most of Dick Francis’s mysteries. And for some reason, The Name of the Rose, which is comforting in a sort of “you have to stay alert every second, but God, you keep finding new stuff” sort of way. (Plus, Eco does some technical things in that book that I would love to write well enough to pull off some day.)

I find, asking around, that mysteries are on many people’s comfort reading list. They deliver a defined moral universe, they offer a puzzle, and with series mysteries like the Sayerses and the Kings, a return to characters who are well-drawn and familiar. And Dick Francis’s characters, while different from book to book, are all of a type: competent with a sound moral compass and just a smidgen of neurosis. You don’t necessarily know what the end of the story will be, but you have a solid sense, going in, of where the book will end up. Which leaves the reader free to enjoy the getting-there of the book.

The books that have slipped off my comfort list? All of Georgette Heyer, I’m sad to say. I probably got my lifetime allotment of Heyer before I turned 30 (and, ex officio, I know too much about the historical English Regency not to get hung up in her inventions). I miss being able to slip into a Heyer novel they way I used to do. Another lost comfort: Red Sky at Morning, the book that saved my life when I was a teenager. There are lines from that book that are still in my daily vocabulary, but I read it to tatters, and can’t face it any more. And the last thing you need in a comfort read is to feel an obligation. Comfort reads pull you to them with the promise of, well, comfort.

SWI got the weirdest, loveliest compliment the other day. An acquaintance told me that one of my books is on her Comfort Reads list. That’s a lovely thing to hear, but what threw me was Acquaintance’s choice of comfort read from my brief oeuvre: The Stone War. Which is a book I’m proud of, but… it’s an apocalypse-in-New-York-City book. With monsters, one angel, many deaths, unrequited love, and a whole lot of iron and stone animals coming to life to take part in an epic battle for the heart of the city. It would not be the first of my books I would select as a comfort read (the New York Times reviewer called it “hard to read, hard to love, and hard to forget.” But he apparently meant it in a good way).

In the way that one doesn’t look a gift in the mouth, I didn’t grill Acquaintance on why this was the book she chose to read when the going got tough. It’s enough that it works that way for her. And I find myself unreasonably pleased to know that I have provided that for her, as a sort of payback to the universe for all the times when a comfort read has made all the difference in my life.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Tidings of Comfort — 10 Comments

  1. Yeah, Heyer is off my list as well. Replaced by Patrick O’Brian.

    I too still reread Austen, and keep rediscovering new things. P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters as well as Liselotte von der Pfalz’s, LOTR, Lois McMaster Bujold, are among my comfort books.

    • It felt almost treasonous to admit that I’d lost the ability to read Heyer–her books meant so much to me at one time. But O’Brian’s not quite on my comfort list yet–still too much to digest, and I can’t help the feeling that I should be taking notes…

  2. I have comfort books that attach themselves to periods of my life. I reread humor graphics like Calvin and Hobbes obsessively at one point in my life, and then gave them all away. Katherine Kurtz (early books) and Georgette Heyer, even Harry Potter. But I return to LotR, Jane Austen, Anne of Green Gables, Kate Seredy, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, for starters. I was a big fan of Red Sky at Morning, too.

    Now I seem to need a specific hero or heroine getting themselves out of trouble–Miller & Lee, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy novels, Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper and Kate Daniels books, Martha Wells’ Raksura novels. I even turn to my own works sometimes, and am always happy when people tell me that the Night Calls books are comfort reads.

  3. My theory is that F&SF writers have mysteries for comfort reading. It is far enough away, but not too far from our home genre. Mystery writers read romance novels when they can’t handle the blood and murder any more. And of course the romance writers are reading SF, happily getting away from those muslins and gloves.

  4. Mysteries are my go to comfort reading: Sayers of course. Chandler, Hammett, Tony Hillerman. In the SF/F world, I’m particularly fond of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I think because I find the college experience there so wonderful.

    Then there are the books I re-read a lot because I just love being in that world. These can be more disturbing, because since I already know what happens I can skim that part or reassure myself. This may be what Acquaintance likes about The Stone War. In my case, I particularly like Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love series for this, even though the world is falling apart at a rapid clip in my lifetime in those books. Also Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic books. Not exactly comforting books, but despite all the troubles I’d like to live in those worlds and that draws me in every time.

      • I think it’s because she was such a damn fine writer. Also many of the things that are problematical are things that are inherent in her characters, and her primary characters are acutely aware of their shortcomings.

  5. Brenda’s theory about fantasy writers reading mysteries for comfort is really interesting, because that’s exactly true for me–Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries are my go-to.

  6. And some of us, like Lois Bujold, have cannily mined that cross-genre comfort reading impulse.
    Sayers hits all the sweet spots for a lot of us. Long ago, but not too irritatingly long. Highly, extraordinarily literate. Characters that you would really love to talk to (or, in the case of Lord Peter, just listen to him talk). Masterfully constructed because she knew what she was doing. Has anyone read her THE MIND OF THE MAKER?

  7. Oh, I totally have a comfort-reading list. In fact, I know when I’m coming down with something if I grab Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage off the shelf, out of order. All Heyer, all Stout, all Crusie, all Pratchett, all Hiaasen…these are my comfort reads.

    I’ve noticed that the more unpleasant the reality I’m fleeing, the more out-of-country, out-of-century the author I flee to.