The Power of Comfort Reading

So here’s the thing: the world of my reading is generally composed of what I call ‘comfort books’. Comfort books are the books that you reach for on days when life seems to tilt its balance and spill you over to the edge of a dark place that closely resembles fear. On days like these, when a text message, a phone call, an email, has disturbed me in some way, left the waters of my inner self seething with turmoil, I reach for Isabel Allende. Neil Gaiman. Maeve Binchy. Agatha Christie. Terry Pratchett. L.M. Montgomery. Louisa May Alcott. Stephen King. Anne Rice. J.K. Rowling. Tolkien.

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They still the waters.

Some, like Allende, still it with their magical, dreamy prose, their very subject matter making my heart expand, as if telling me, see, it’s not so bad. The world is large, life is long, many things can happen and this, this thing that has happened to you today, it is just one in a long list of things that will happen to you in your lifetime.

Some, like Gaiman and Pratchett, take me to worlds so far removed from my own that there, I can finally feel safe. I remember reading Gaiman’s Neverwhere on just such a day, and the reason it remains my favorite Gaiman book is because on that difficult day when I read it, I imagined myself as Richard, plunging into dark and dangerous London Below — which dark and dangerous as it was, still for some reason, felt like a much safer world than the one I was in.

What can I say about the rest? From Alcott to King to Christie, as different as they are, they were all writers that built my childhood and lined the shelves of my teenage bedroom. So I turn to them, again and again, the very familiarity of the plots and prose soothing my adult soul the way they comforted the child I was.

The truth is, when I feel disturbed or sad or afraid (as I very often feel), I don’t want to read Alice Munro or David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami. They are all fine writers and I have enjoyed their books, but for me, these writers touch my brain, not my heart. They require me to have my mind turned on and running at full-speed. They demand at least eight hours sleep a night. Sometimes, I just don’t have the capacity for them, on days when life has taken so much out of me that I have nothing left to give to the fiction I read.

My comfort reads, on the other hand, require no brain power, since I’ve read them all before. And if these books have done their job, which I know they will, by the time I finish them, they would have taught me not to be so afraid.

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