(Jessie Willcox Smith, cover illustration for The Bedtime Book by Helen Hay Whitney, Duffield/Chatto 1907; shamelessly stolen from Annabel)
It’s that time of year, my least favourite, when the spangly pleasures and anticipations of Christmas have passed and it seems as if the cold, grey days of winter will never end. Boo. Those of us who live in houses without central heating are finding it hard to leap out of a cosy bed in the mornings and into the icy air, and those of us who are teachers are administering exams on our poor students. (And cackling evilly.) And many of us are comfort-reading, especially those who are taking part in Iris and Ana’s initiative.
I have been comfort-reading for a while now: for some reason the world’s horrors seem to have been pressing in more insistently lately, and the failures of the climate summit in Paris depressed me. I don’t want any more horror and depression in my reading at the moment, thanks anyway. I want to be reminded of humanity’s goodness before I turn into a bitter old witch. Iris and Ana define comfort-reading as reading books that are very likely to bring us comfort and joy, and that seems to sum it up nicely.
So what do I read when I comfort-read? Perhaps a little oddly, my comfort-reading of choice used to be Golden Age detective novels: those green Penguins of Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, John Dickson Carr et al. A jolly murder or two, neatly wrapped up at the end, with lots of outdated slang and complicated alibis and eccentric detectives. Now it’s much more likely to be a children’s book and in the last few weeks I’ve gorged on Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, Cassandra Golds, Rumer Godden, Nina Beachcroft and Frances Hardinge. Perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t been feeling much of an urge to write about books has been that I’m slightly embarrassed to be reading quite so many children’s books yes I am a book snob. But I’ve also been reading a little adult fiction: that old stalwart, I Capture the Castle, and Guard Your Daughters, House of Mist and The Rabbit Back Literature Society, all of which are new to me but have been beguilingly reviewed on other blogs and somehow called to my present state of mind. I’m eyeing my generous Christmas gift to myself, a second-hand Folio Socity copy of The Once and Future King; its only disadvantage is that I can’t heave it onto the bus with me when I go to work without denting a pensioner or two.
I was thinking then about what characterises these books and makes them good comfort-reads. Formally and in terms of prose style they’re not too demanding. Anne Boyer and her Garments Against Women are sitting on the shelf until my mood changes. I don’t want to work too hard during a comfort-read, I want the author to hold my hand.
Predictability is a feature of many of the novels: quite a few are books I’ve read before, at least once, or are by authors I’ve encountered before, so there is very little risk of my not enjoying them. Some I associate with my childhood, tingeing the predictability with nostalgia. And the Golden Age detective novels also combine nostalgia, in the form of the earlier and mid-twentieth century, with predictability – I may not work out the identity of the murderer but I know that the detective will and that order will be restored by the end of the story. The children’s books too tend to end in a satisfying way, with some sort of resolution.
Another pattern is that many of the books are set at one remove from the reality I know. There are talking dolls and cats, witches, fairies and changelings, books that change their contents; the stories occur in the past, in other worlds and where other rules apply. I don’t know anyone who lives in a castle in the 1930s any more than I have visited a creepy Finnish town like Rabbit Back or a mist-wreathed hacienda beside a sinister, bride-containing lake. It goes without saying that all of these are novels. I have never felt compelled to read non-fiction when I’m in need of comfort. I do dip into Walter de la Mare’s anthology Come Hither sometimes; the poems fit the criteria of nostalgia, childhood, fantasy, being not too demanding to interpret.
And there may be a melancholy to some of the books – I’m thinking here of I Capture the Castle and Cassandra Golds’ works, in particular – but it’s a rich, Romantic sort of sadness which is connected with the best of human impulses, with care for others, rather different from despair. Perhaps House of Mist pushes this melancholy towards masochism...
What about you? Do you sometimes read books for comfort? What do you choose and why?