The BBC’s recent 100 Books that Shaped our World has started me thinking about comfort reads. What are they? When do we want them? Maybe even need them, indeed. What do they do for us? And how do we find them in the first place?
And is comfort reading a Bad Thing?
Escapism, after all, has got a bad press ever since the word was first coined, apparently in thirties USA i.e. at the height of the Depression. The Oxford English Dictionary defines escapism as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”
Introducing Comfort Reads
The first time I heard the phrase, I must have been six or seven. Christmas was coming. I was wildly excited. My mother, facing the prospect of shoehorning seven adults (two of them imperious ladies of 80+ with a long history of skirmishing) into a small house of two and a half bedrooms, was less so.
At T–24 hours, she cast her notebook of lists away from her and said, “I need a comfort read.” Achilles before the walls of Troy could not have spoken with more feeling. The warrior, one felt, was preparing herself for the conflict to come.
My father – they were his relatives after all – made her a consoling cup of tea. Then he built up the fire, so she could toast her toes. And he and I tiptoed away to repair paper chains.
I concluded that a Comfort Read was what you gave yourself before going into battle.
What Are Comfort Reads?
They are mood changers. You come away from reading them them re-booted, as it were. They refresh your energies. Put a spring in your step. Restore balance.
Re-reading or New Reading
Some people (at least one of the BBC’s 100 Books panel, for example) think re-reading a book is a waste of time. I don’t – but that’s personal too.
I feel re-reading one of my favourites is like visiting an old friend. I don’t have to do all the polite introductory things. I just stride straight in and warm myself at their fire. It’s like coming home.
But for those who feel differently – well, a novel is so much more than a plot. If you love Poirot or Brother Cadfael or Lesley Cookman’s Libby Sergeant, you will almost certainly get the same lift of mood from a new title as from the first one with which you fell in love.
For instance, I’m pretty certain that my mother’s Comfort Read that long-ago Christmas was a Ngaio Marsh detective novel. She liked Marsh’s world, of civilised people with imagination, careers and, generally, a conscience. And, of course, in Golden Age detective fiction, chaos always ends in a resolution.
Writing a Comfort Read?
- served Christmas dinner three hours late because I forgot to switch the oven on
- waltzed with a toppling Christmas tree while the fairy lights did the tango and I feared for the power circuits
- sellotaped the cat*.
So when we set out to write a couple of Comfort Reads for Christmas, Joanna and I remembered all the tension, the disasters, the last minute salvage operations…. and the laughter.
And above all, that feeling of coming home.
* And yes, the cat did forgive me. Eventually.