What books are your comfort food?
I’m going to note, first, that I posted this question on twitter and my student replied, “books are difficult to eat.” Now that we’ve gotten that exceptional moment of snark out of the way…..
Comforting books are good things to have around, because life (at least in my experience) occasionally or often gets tough. Grief hits in waves when you least expect it, or sometimes when you most expect it. Stress and depression and loneliness are part of the variabilities of being human, but I’m of the opinion that we don’t have to treat this as calamity every time it happens. We can move upwards and onwards and make life better and fight for happiness. It’s really good to get up the next day and say, “hey. I’m still here. I’m going to try again.” It is also really good to let ourselves be in the moment, feel whatever we are feeling, and accept that we’re not quite doing okay at the moment.
There’s a song by the singer-songwriter-lover duo, Johnnyswim, “Let it Matter,” which insists on this honor. “If it matters, let it matter. If your heart’s breaking, let it ache.” We are allowed to let ourselves feel crummy, and treat ourselves with exceptional kindness. Chocolate, a little wine, and a nice blanket on the couch go a long way. Maybe for you it’s a haircut, or a big bag of popcorn, or one of those fancy face-mask things to which I always tend to be allergic. And of course, you need a good self-care book on hand.
I have two candidates for comforting books. Both tend towards lighter fare and hopefulness, and both emphasize the delights of food, but neither copy is edible. For me, reading lists are tinted by the seasons.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Ann Shaffer and Mary Ann Barrows
Why it’s comfort food:
This is my second time reading this book, and I am again made joyful by its quick pace, its richness of character, and its insistence on the value of reading. The story is about an English writer, Juliet, who begins corresponding with residents on the channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans in WWII. She learns about the literary society they accidentally formed, and eventually becomes their friend. The book isn’t all light fun, as occupation was a miserable time and there are real human tragedies and hardships. They’re given their due, but the book’s message seems to be that there is still good in the world, that there are places where life is simpler, and that forming connections with one another is a way to survive and heal. I tend to recommend this book a lot to friends who aren’t as willing to slog through **literature** as I am, and I also recommend it as a cure for sadness. It seems to be working for me right now.
A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle
Why it’s comfort food:
Everything about this nonfiction book is lovely. Each chapter follows a month of the author’s hijinx living in the French countryside with his wife. There is much mouth-watering description of food and landscape; the antics of locals and invited guests (and uninvited guests). The quest (which is obviously influenced by the easy wealth of the author) is just to enjoy the goodness that life has to offer. I love Mayle’s writing because he is a world-champion Noticer of Things and he has a great sense of humor.
Any of the Jeeves / Wooster books, by P.G. Wodehouse.
I asked this question on facebook, too, and was really interested by the answers I got. Some seemed reasonable: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Ella Enchanted (all those are excellent books from my childhood and would certainly bring warm feelings if I were to re-read them). Others shared books that I would have never thought of in this manner. Great books, masterful books, but really comforting? Are these the books we read to take care of ourselves?
I guess this raises the companion question: what makes a book comfort food? What distinguishes the books we come back to over and over again? Is it something about the values they preach (I think that’s apparent from my own answers)? Is it that we know them so well, or they’re so easy to read, that the cognitive load is eased and we float through the book nicely? Is it just that we already have read them a bunch of times and we know what happens, and the absence of surprise is welcome? (If that’s true, a fifth reading of Frankenstein would fill some kind of void for me).
Whatever the answer for you, I hope you are reading something that brings you joy and reassurance, and that you have a few failsafe books around to re-read when you need them. And as always, I’d love to hear what’s on your list.