“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.
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.
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.
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 Book, which 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) .
So! What’s your comfort read and why? Any new discoveries?