End of Summer: Comfort Reads

woman reading

“Oh, that’s my comfort read!”

“I’m in the need for a comfort read.”

“I have to confess, all I can read right now are my guilty pleasure books—you know, for comfort.”

I’ve been seeing that around a lot these days, what with grim news from around the world, and here in the USA the polarization of an election that everyone seems to be tired of. I posted about comfort reads four years ago , which sparked a lot of discussion and recommendations, so I think it’s time to give it another go.

It’s no surprise that what makes a perfect comfort read for one person doesn’t work for someone else–just like everything else. For example, on a panel a couple years back, I mentioned that Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword  was one of my comfort reads. Another panelist reacted with horror, claiming that the opening chapters favor colonialism. I had to admit I’ve never noticed the favoring of colonialism in all my rereads—Harry is only at home for a couple of chapters, and she seemed pretty unhappy there—but then different readers are sensitive to different things. Other people consider books I could not get through once as their comfort reads.

wodehouse

Though I’ve noticed certain authors or works cropping up frequently, across a wide variety of readers: P.G. Wodehouse’s name has come up the most often, with Jane Austen in second place. Third place goes to Agatha Christie.

It could be these three names only show up in the particular circles I hang out in—especially as the first two are high on my own list. But speaking of books I couldn’t get through, I have never made it all the way to the end of an Agatha Christie novel. I’ve tried—I own a bunch of them, plus her autobiography—and every single one causes my eyes to glaze as soon as the characters start discussing clues at any length . . . and I fall asleep. I will keep trying, though, because every single time I admit this, I get a disappointed reaction, like I’ve committed a severe lapse in taste, and I think, when I grow up, I will like Agatha Christie!

As I mentioned in the first post on this subject, many readers believe that no first read can be a comfort read. I get the thinking behind that—you don’t know the ending, therefore you don’t have the comfortable anticipation of knowing what comes next.

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 fashioning with such stylistic mastery.

goblin emp

And in genre, I found Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor  to be a profoundly comforting read my first time through—this at a totally rotten time when other books pretty much failed me. Second and third readings have established it in my list, which isn’t very long.

Over the years, some books have fallen off the list, as the reading doesn’t hold up, like Enid Blyton’s Adventure books—read and reread passionately when I was in grade school. Certain of Georgette Heyer’s are falling into this category, though they sustained me for decades.

But some still work in certain moods, even if not as intensely as they had. Others I reread more often, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, though I stop around number sixteen.

 

Miss buncle

Then there are the books I reread that are not quite 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 still D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Bookwhich has at last been republished. 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. And have: for the longest time you could not find it as a used book under hundreds of dollars.

Re Jane Austen, rereading, and comfort reads, the best essay I’ve found is in Patricka Meyer Spacks’ book On Rereading.

The experience of rereading creates a palimpsest of consciousness, she says. In her book she talks about guilty pleasures, how most books change on rereading because we change, the rarity of those that can stay the same (P.G. Wodehouse) .

girl reading

So! What’s your comfort read and why? Any new discoveries?

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End of Summer: Comfort Reads — 80 Comments

  1. I have so many un-read books on my shelf that I force myself not to reread much, but these are the books I’ve found the most comfort in rereading:

    Pride and Prejudice
    Persuasion
    Gaskell’s North and South
    Potok’s The Chosen
    The Queen of Attolia
    Crown Duel
    Treasure Island
    Howl’s Moving Castle (or any DWJ that I haven’t read yet)
    Harry Potter

    • Interesting. I wouldn’t have figured _Queen of Attolia_ for a comfort read. _King_, certainly, though.

      • _Queen of Attolia_ works as a comfort book for me, but I skip the first chapters when I’m rereading it that way.

        _The Blue Castle_ by Montgomery was on my comfort-read shelf for a long time. I wonder if it still works for me?

  2. For me, comfort reads are books that hit all (or almost all) of the high points I look for in a story. They’re usually good against evil books where it looks like the good guys will lose, but they keep trying and they win in an amazing climax.

    I guess that’s because, like you say, a way to fight the bad that’s going on in the wo5rld. And believe that everything will be okay.

    • Yes! All my comfort books have good endings. That’s a must. I do know people whose comfort reads are tragic, which is a puzzler to me–but then I’m sure my comfort reads are a puzzler to them.

  3. Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist was a comfort read the first time I read it, and has been since. The Curse of Chalion is right up there, too, along with The Sherwood Ring and the Christmas chapter of The Wind in the Willows. And sometimes Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books and The Rescuers (though I wept to see what Disney had done to them). (But sometimes that works the other way around–if you don’t like Christie’s books, try the British series shown on Mystery for years. David Suchet and Joan Hickson are delightful, as are Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry in Wodehouse stuff.)

    • Oh, I love David Suchet’s Poirot! That’s why I was so surprised I couldn’t get into the books. Of course half of it is the gorgeousness of the art nouveau world that they put him in.

      My chapter in Wind in the Willows is the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

    • What wonderful taste you have! [In other words, you agree with me.]

      Have you tried Bujold’s Sharing Knife series? _Passage_ is my favorite, especially the traveling scenes on the river, the camaraderie among the boat-crew, and the giant catfish of doom.

  4. Books about writers are always fun.
    For years I knew that I would enjoy the Hornblower books, by C. S. Forrester. I was so certain, I carefully didn’t read them. I was saving them, for some life crisis when I would be trapped in some horrible town or in the hospital in traction or on the front lines doing some awful job. I knew I would need them, someday. And the day did come (I was stuck for two weeks over the summer away from home). I immediately resorted to the local library and took them all out, nine volumes or so. I read them all, in chronological order, and was perfectly happy.
    The only problem now is, what do I do if I am trapped in a town or in hospital in traction?

  5. Austen
    Jane Eyre (okay, my idea of comfort may not be the same as anyone else’s, but…)
    Laurie King’s first five or six Russell-Holmes books
    Dorothy Sayers
    Dick Francis
    Mary Stewart

    • Several people have mentioned Dick Francis in this regard. They are too violent for me–I have to nerve myself to read them–but they sure are good!

      Cranford is another of mine; your mention of Jane Eyre reminded me.

    • I fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey years ago! Sayers’ books are still a comfort read to me.

  6. I love to get lost in the Liaden Universe books. I find space opera romance very comforting, I guess!

  7. I’ve just discovered D.E. Stevenson, myself.

    But there’s Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

  8. Comfort isn’t about political correctness; the two seem to operate on parallel, non-intersecting paths. I’m as delighted as anyone to applaud fiction that exposes bigotry, prejudice, and oppression, but that’s not where I want to go when I’ve had an awful day. Those special comfort books often struck me in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. For example, The Golden Key (Roberson, Rawn, Elliott) and Palace (Kerr, Kreighbaum) got me through a particularly rough patch. They might not be on my list otherwise.

    Other curl-up-and-read favorites include:
    Elisabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
    Jean Webster, Daddy-Long-Legs
    Barbara Hambly, Dragonsbane
    Carol Kendall, The Gammage Cup
    Dorothy Canfield, Understood Betsy (and recently I’ve discovered her other work)

    I keep battered paperback copies of The Lord of the Rings that I read in the bathtub. For some reason, being immersed in hot, bubbly water brings out the hobbit-comfort.

    • LOL! About the hobbit comfort!

      Out of your list, The Gammage Cup is another old fave–that needs a revisit, most definitely! Thanks for the reminder.

      • Did you know there’s a sequel, The Whisper of Glocken? Not quite as good, but still worth tracking down if you haven’t read it.

        Add me to the Wodehouse list. I like the Blandings Castle books the best, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

  9. Comfort reads, huh? I was actually recently in need of them…

    Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician and Age of the Five trilogies. Obviously not the whole things – selected scenes, the less serious ones usually.

    This sounds weird, possibly, but Dorothy Dunnet’s Game of Kings. It’s just so much fun, seeing Lymond run rings around everybody, and it was probably the most light-hearted of the series.

    Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, and Richard Greene’s The Thirty Three Strategies of War. Sometimes I don’t want a full story I need to follow – I want an anecdote of sorts, where immediately afterwards the author explains the meaning of it.

    And of course, selected chapter from various books – The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and The Scouring of The Shire from Return of the King, for example, or the ending chapters of Blood Spirits. The kind of high action where after a long build-up, everything is moving towards a good end.

    • I know a couple of people who respond strongly to Dorothy Dunnett as comfort read, though various books are faves.

      Oh yes. Below, there is mention of special chapters of books. There are many individual chapters of Lord of the Rings that I find profoundly comforting, though the whole–the sense of the passing of an age–is so full of yearning and sadness that it is great, but not . . . comforting. Faramir says that tears are the very wine of blessedness–I wish I could attain that wisdom.

  10. Wow, lots of good titles to check out here — I just ordered “Miss Buncle’s Book.” I love Dorothy Sayers for her Peter Wimsey novels, though in later years I find myself more critical of the class assumptions. Same goes for Jane Austen, though “Pride and Prejudice” remains an all-time favorite, despite Darcy’s sometimes awful pronouncements about “connections.” I still occasionally dip into a Mary Stewart novel for a cheap trip to exotic locations. And of course the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy always sucks me in. Another I’ve reread more than once is Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Looking forward to the upcoming TV series with curiosity and some trepidation….
    Thanks, Sherwood!

    • I too am a fan of “American Gods.” The casting for the TV series so far is very strong, and Bryan Fuller was an amazing producer/showrunner for “Hannibal,” so I have high hopes. (Loved “Hannibal,” but that’s definitely not comforting!)

  11. I count all of Terry Pratchett as my comfort reads (or nearly all). I discovered them about twelve years ago in college, and ever since, I’ve found them to be the perfect sort of book for comfort. They are particularly nice when I’m sick, as they are just the right sort of humor and lightness that they feel like a quick read, but balanced with enough depth that I’m not annoyed by the frivolity. (I tend to be fractious when sick.) Pratchett is also nice when I want something light just because.

    • Absolutely! The Discworld novels are top of my list in stressful times. You are right about the balance – the humor with the satire, so that I manage to laugh and think in the same moment! Saves time. Sometimes I find myself reaching for a particular Pratchett novel, one of the first signs that my mind needs soothing.

  12. Interesting that I haven’t ever really sat down to consider comfort reads as their own thing before. I mean, when I’m in the mood for a comfort read, I simply go downstairs and grab the book that matches my need in the moment. So it seems that when I need comfort is exactly when I’m least likely to analyze anything about it.

    Thinking now, I seem to have a weird dichotomy. I reach for many of the authors mentioned in the post and comments. Heyer, Wodehouse, Pratchett. To those I’d add Bujold. I think of these as relationship/character comforts.

    But then I have times I’m more interested in adventure/action and that’s a completely different subset. And not because the first set lacks adventure and action. I mean Miles Verkosigan is all about the action, right? But Bujold is still in my relationship/character mood because the real draw of those books for me are the relationships and characters.

    My actiony comforts are Glen Cook’s War God’s Own or Laurel K. Hamilton’s Obsidian Butterfly (the last book before she descended into outright erotica) or Loius L’Amour’s Sackett novels. These are books that have a paladin personality with a side of competence porn. Good guys fighting the good fight despite impossible odds.

    • Well crap. Mixed up Glen Cook (where I like the Garrett novels) with David Weber (the above mentioned War God’s Own). Weird mix up, that, actually. Poor Glen doesn’t deserve that. I love Weber’s Bahnak Bazellson’s series despite some egregious storytelling weaknesses (like prose so purple it fades into ultra-violet)…

  13. Oh. What wonderful lists…. I love that there are some which I have not heard of and can investigate! I am going to have to create an official Comfort Read list for myself instead of prolonged poking through my bookshelves every time I need a comfort read.

    Note: My Wind In the Willows chapter is Dulce Domum – although I also love
    Piper…
    Several Robin McKinley books will be on my list – except Deerskin. Also several of Barbara Hambly’s.

    Not seen above:
    Barry Hughart’s A Bridge of Birds
    L.M. Bujold’s Gentlemen Jole and The Red Queen (the only one of the Vorkosigan books I can read a chapter at a time instead of finding myself awake at 3am for ‘just one more’.)

  14. Bridge of Birds is also one of my comfort reads. It was so rewarding to give it to my son, when he was going through a rough spot, and have it exactly meet his needs right then–so I would say at least in that instance, a first read can be a comfort read.

  15. To add to many of the above who are on my well worn list: A lot of Sharon Shinn’s books-especially the 12 houses series and Melissa Scott’s Pointsmen books. Patricia Wrede, both the Dragons books and the 13th Child trilogy (both also good in audio)
    And in a separate category are comfort listens for when I am awake in the night – (Kindle Fire is a nice vehicle for audio books in bed) – the Phryne Fisher novels have a great reader, Bujold -bothe the Vorverse and the 5 Gods books, Diana Wynne Jones -Enchanted Glass, and the Howel books, Terry Pratchett good to listen to as well as to read.

        • Then I highly recommend Mark Oshiro, who reads unspoilered and records the videos. Many have commentary on his site and fun discussion, but lots are commissions up on youtube. He’s read through all the Tamora Pierce books, a couple of Diana Wynne Jones titles, is about halfway through Pratchett’s Discworld and halfway through Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. He’s also read all the Enchanted Forest chronicles and several short stories. All of these are up on youtube in half-hour sections under “Mark Reads”. It’s like watching one of your best friends read your favorites for the first time; epic flail ensues.

  16. Thanks to all for the excellent lists and recommendations. I will be adding so many to my To-Read list. (Despairs of the ever-increasing length of my list.)

    I do have books that I read when severely stressed – as already mentioned, anything by Terry Pratchett. Someone mentioned E. Goudge’s “The Little White Horse” (I thought I was the only one who still read that one), and I especially love her book “The Dean’s Watch.” (I re-read that one every Christmas.)
    Dorothy L. Sayers.
    Charles Dickens, especially “Bleak House” or “David Copperfield.” Something about Dickens’ leisurely descriptions and slow unpacking of plot forces me to slow down and immerse myself in that world.
    I still read P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins. (The Not-Disney versions.)
    I also like Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” – like Dickens, her consideration of the minutiae of life (nature, where Dickens focuses on people) requires me to slow down.
    Patricia McKillip for fantasy, for stepping into a world unlike this one.
    And perhaps oddly, Stephen King, when I am deeply troubled. I remember reading one of his novels when my father lay in hospital dying, and I thought, No matter how terrible my own circumstances are, Stephen King can always imagine something more terrible than this. I found – and still find – that to be a comforting thought. It’s all about the balance, I suppose.

  17. Mysteries are my go-to for comfort reading. I think that’s because if it’s been long enough since I first read them I either can’t remember who done it or, at the very least, can’t remember how it was figured out. So from the comfort pov, I’m sufficiently engaged in the story to forget my troubles, but not so engaged that I have to think very hard.

    I understand your problem with Agatha Christie. I read a good deal of her when I was young (my mother was a fan), but then got bored by her ludicrous plots. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate Miss Marple. The plots are still silly, but I have a fondness for smart spinsters.

    Otherwise, in addition to Dorothy Sayers, I am fond of re-reading Tony Hillerman, Raymond Chandler, and Rex Stout.

  18. I second Sharon Shinn — for me the Elemental Blessings books were comfort reads from the first time I opened Troubled Waters, and I go back to them when I’m feeling in need of something warm and soothing. Same for the Sharing Knife books — and also The Goblin Emperor.

  19. In comfort mysteries Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mysteries – and the audios are also superb

  20. Agree with the comment above that my comfort reads tend to focus strongly on character. For a long while, Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber was the one I turned to when I was struggling. In more recent years, it’s been Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival, whose ending made me cry glad tears.

  21. Comfort reads. . .

    Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
    Hellspark
    The War for the Oaks
    Bridge of Birds
    Fifth Life of the Cat Woman
    The Hot Rock
    Privilege of the Sword
    (Miss Buncle’s Book was on the way to becoming a comfort book, and then I read the second one, which retroactively ruined the first for me. I’ve never had that happen before, so kudos to DE Stevens, who made me Believe)

  22. In addition to many books listed above, ones I haven’t seen listed:
    Martha Wells – Ile Rien trilogy – fab characters, world building, and plotting
    Megan Whalen Turner – the Thief series
    David Palmer – Emergence ( I thought it was a bit over-the-top the first time I read it, but something compelled me to re-read one bit of it, and I ended up rereading the whole thing and appreciating it more. Now one of my comfort reads.)
    Laurie King – first books in Mary Russell series ( the last ones haven’t been very good IMO)