Reading for Reassurance
You’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.
Personally, 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.)
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)
Less 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.
But 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?