When the going gets tough, a sensible strategy is to retire between the covers of a book. Not just any book: something special that offers comfort and consolation. Such reads are often re-reads, a return to beloved books that one once found pleasure in. Yet others belong to specific genres, whose tried-and-tested formulas are guaranteed to gratify.
Whatever you select, as journalist Hester Lacey has written, “Whether the problem is a broken heart or a broken leg, a dose of flu or sprained self-confidence, books can help make it better.” Quite.
It’s not that such books necessarily need to be cheerful — although PG Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett certainly counts as comfort reads for many. But, as Nigella Lawson has said, “Good art, even if it's about things that are depressing, is incredibly uplifting. When you are feeling low, what is difficult is being trapped in your own feelings and anxieties; in a book, there is some escape.” Deliciously put.
The Favourite List
I conducted a Twitter poll earlier this week to find out what people turn to. The results of this admittedly very rough and extremely random survey: crime fiction took the top spot, with a little less than half of the respondents choosing it as their go-to comfort read.
This isn’t surprising, as most successful thrillers and mysteries depend for their effects on the creation of a well-defined fictional world, be it Victorian London, middle England’s St Mary Mead, the pitiless streets of Edinburgh, the crumbling squares of Venice or so many others. These are fully formed realms to escape into, with the added consolation that at the end — most of the time — the criminal will be detected and society will return to normal.
Vying for second place was any childhood favourite, which is where the magic of re-reading takes centre-stage. The characters of such books, from those by CS Lewis to Roald Dahl to AA Milne, are old, familiar friends. And where would we be without regularly re-living the exploits of Asterix and Tintin? All of them call out to us from a time when we were less troubled by the world’s travails.
Among the limited number of those who took this poll, romances, whether from the Regency period or otherwise, scored low. One would have thought the figure would have been higher, although Georgette Heyer did come up in the comments. Perhaps the genre itself needs a refresh, in the way that rom-coms do.
Poetry was something I had thoughtlessly omitted from the options, and this was pointed out in some of the comments. Savouring once again the powerful words of a talismanic poem, in the way that one caresses a smooth, weather-beaten stone, certainly has the power to soothe. They can provide succour until a time when, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/Those overlooked regarded.”
When Fiction Feels Better
Confirming what those who turn to books for comfort have long felt, a recent study shows that we can derive a similar amount of life satisfaction from feeling that we belong to a fictional world as we can from belonging to a real-life group. As Buffalo University’s Dr Shira Gabriel puts it, “Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.”
Despite all the generalisations one can make — and has made — about such comfort reading, it remains true that the nature of such titles is intensely personal, and hence entirely subjective. Some of the names that came up in answers to the poll, for example, were those such as E.M. Forster, Truman Capote, and even Marcel Proust.
A recent Reddit thread on the subject, to take another example, contains this comment, a personal favourite (the comment, not the book): “When I'm sick, I start reading Stephen King’s
The Stand. If I'm not better by the time 99 percent of the population is dead, I go to the doctor.” Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.