Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?

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11 thoughts on “Comfort Reading

  1. Oh yes, I’m in a comfort reading zone at the moment thanks to post-Nanowrimo tiredness. My “go to” author for this is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series because I’ve re-read it so many times. I love Connie Willis too – good choice! But in this house, in the month of December, it has to be Enid Blyton’s The Christmas Book which I’ve read every Christmas since I was about 10, although now I read it aloud to my own kids. She’s not well known in US, but she’s compulsory reading for UK and Irish kids.

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    • Enid Blyton! I was very fond of the stories of hers that I ran across as a child — the Adventure series. I even bought one of the books recently just for nostalgia’s sake. I can see that The Christmas Book is going to be harder to come by; it’s not in my library system, for instance. But thanks for the idea!

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  2. Similarly, I definitely have comfort movies, the most common of which is a movie from a book – Little Women. Matches a lot of your criteria – happy endings, relatively low stakes problems (most of the time), romance, family stories, and some humor.

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  3. Pingback: Christmas Comfort Viewing | Rick Ellrod's Locus

  4. I stumbled across this post when I was looking for illustrations from Elizabeth Enright’s books, which I loved both as a child and an adult. However, I also live science fiction, and was surprised how many of my favorites you included in this post! I particularly love Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and almost all of Lois McMaster Bujold. I have no idea whether you are still seeing responses to this now old post, but I have a couple of suggestions for you; the early books of Steve Miller and Sharon Lee (1989s) are wonderful – I think Agent of Change is the first of the Liaden series (the latest ones are okay, but not as good). For children’s books, which I confess to still reading even though my children are grown, Hilda Van Stockum’s Mitchell family series are very good and kind of obscure, so you might not have see them. If you have recommendations for newer SF authors, I would much appreciate it.

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    • Sheila — thanks! Always glad to see a comment on a post of whatever vintage. And thanks for the recommendations. Turns out I have an e-book copy of _Agent of Change_ — acquired recently in a bundle — I’ll put that at the top of my list. Meanwhile, I’ll scout around for the Van Stockum books. Are they similar to the Melendy stories?

      Newer SF authors — I assume you don’t necessarily mean ‘comfort reading’ writers — let me see. I’ve run into some pretty good ones through a local SF&F book club. Ted Chiang has some good stories, in a ‘cool,’ intellectually interesting way. I liked Charlie Jane Anders’ _All the Birds in the Sky_ — not so much her more recent _The City in the Middle of the Night_. John Scalzi seems to have some good stuff, once I got over being miffed at his revision of H. Beam Piper’s “Fuzzies” universe. Over in the military SF/adventure categories, I’ve enjoyed some stories by Eric Flint and John Ringo. (There’s a Flint/Ryk Spoor series beginning with _Boundary_ that starts out with nanites and aliens and then veers into a sort of Swiss Family Robinson in space.) Sue Burke’s _Semiosis_ is intriguingly weird. I enjoyed Emily Davenport’s _Medusa Uploaded_ and am aiming to get hold of the sequel when I have a spare moment.

      Interestingly enough, as I canvass recent readings, I notice the ones I liked tend to be fantasy rather than SF. Not sure what that means . . .

      Maybe I need to parlay this answer into another blog post! 🙂

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  5. Thanks so much for answering. I was also enthusiastic to read your post, because I rarely run into any adult who likes (good) children’s books – and you also mentioned Eleonor Estes and Edward Eager – two more of my favorites. The Hilda Van Stockum Mitchell family series did remind me of the Melendy family series; it is set in the WWII era, right here in DC. I mentioned it because it is such a joy to find something that few people have heard of that is also really good. They were reprinted maybe 15 years back, and I used to read them to my children when they were growing up. But as I said, I also love SF, and most of what I read is pretty old, and I have already read everything my favorite authors have written (sometimes multiple times!). I will give your suggestions a try.

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    • Sheila — Good to hear!

      I wonder if anyone is writing ‘family adventure’ stories like Enright’s and Estes’ these days, for a modern audience. The WW II setting was a bit old-timey even for me; for my grandkids it’d be positively archaic. But I suspect readers or writers of MG books these days are looking for something more sophisticated, or more fantastic: Harry Potter, not Rush and Randy.

      On new genre books, a site I’ve found useful is https://www.fantasticfiction.com/genres/?gp=S — this link is to the SF page, but (as noted at the bottom) they have pages for quite a lot of categories, including fantasy, YA, mystery, romance, and even Westerns. One can browse over new or forthcoming releases and see what might look interesting. (In addition to hanging out at the local library near the ‘new releases’ shelves, of course.) 🙂

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      • There are a few from my children’s era (now in college). For example, the first two books of the Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall are very much in the same tradition as the Melendys. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Jacqueline Kelly) is well worth reading. My kids both loved all of my old favorites as well, but is true they are based on a long ago reality. And my daughter’s true favorite was probably Harry Potter (which she has read to the point that the books of the original set were lost or fell to pieces over the years – I got her a new set for Christmas last year). Thanks for the link – I will take a look, and I will keep an eye on your blog!

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