Comfort Books

What makes a comfort book?You don’t have to be ill or even tired, to feel the need for one, but you know you just want something familiar and reassuring. A comfort book won’t hurt you or bewilder you, or tax your brain. It doesn’t have to be sticky or sentimental – sometimes it can have quite rough edges – it just depends what works for you at that moment. There are all sorts of books out there – worthy, good, enjoyable books – but just for the present, they aren’t for you. You’re after comfort.
When I knew that I was to start chemotherapy, I put aside ‘Middlemarch’ for my comfort read and it’s stood me in good stead over many an evening -Dorothea’s ghastly marriage, Lydgate’s slow corruption and Rosamund’s complacency- so many stories, all against the background of small town intrigue and politics. Dorothea does become annoying as the story progresses, Ladislaw is annoying throughout, but it’s a book to lose yourself in.
Where to go from ‘Middlemarch?’ Well, surely it has to be Trollope. I looked on our shelves and found ‘Phineas Finn’ which I haven’t read for so many years, I’ve quite forgotten it, and so far am absorbed by this story of a young, confused but ambitious man thrust into Parliament. And I’ve just discovered that I can download most of Trollope for free on my Kindle – so hooray!
Jane Austen is the ultimate comfort read. All of them, of course, but I’m fond of ‘Mansfield Park’ though I know it isn’t her most popular book. Fanny Price is tougher than she seems at first glance, and Mrs Norris is probably Austen’s most monstrous monster.
Here are some more of my comfort books:
I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith
Bilgewater – Jane Gardham – a teenage novel, long out of print, but worth chasing up.
Enchanted April – Elizabeth Von Arnim – A friend gave me this once when I was ill. Three women rent an Italian castle on spring in the inter-war years – lovely.
The Great Gatsby – Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe not an obvious comfort book, with such a strong skein of melancholy and disquiet running through it, but the beauty of the writing, and the atmosphere make it a book to float away on like a dream.
And perhaps my favourite contemporary writer for comfort – Anne Tyler. She writes about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but transformed by a deep humanity and warmth, and full of unexpected twists and turns. Recently I’ve read ‘Digging to America’ in which two very different American families adopt Korean babies, and ‘A Patchwork Planet’ about the black sheep of a stuffy well-to-do family.
Of course, comfort books are quite personal and idiosyncratic. What works for one person might not work at all for someone else. You might be bemused by my choice, I might be left cold by yours. So what does work for you? It would be lovely to read some of your suggestions.

8 thoughts on “Comfort Books”

  1. Lovely post, and I hope your comfort books get you through. Mine v similar, but would add some like:
    Frances Hodgson Burnett Not just The Secret Garden but adult novels like The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness (Persephone)
    Miss Buncle’s Book (Stevenson, also Persephone)
    Cold Comfort Farm and Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)

  2. You are SO much more highminded than me, Frances. When I was in hospital I could scarcely read at all, only a sentence or two before I collapsed again. And afterwards, in recovery, all I could read was books I had already read! Luckily, that covered all of Anne Tyler. I don’t think I could have done Middlemarch, or Trollope (except for The Small House at Allington). I very much wish I’d thought of Dodie Smith, that was clever of you. I now wish I’d thought of EH Young, but I did try MM Kaye, and Barbara Kingsolver: both very good choices. Elizabeth Taylor might work? This is all a bit like Desert Island Discs, isn’t it.

  3. A blog to make one think, Frances! Yes to Middlemarch, Jane Austen and Trollope. Anything by Anne Tyler would be on my list too, and Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead and Home – she has also published a wonderful book of essays, intriguingly entitled When I Was Young I Read Books, but although it is never dull or tendentious, quite the reverse, it’s thoughts are a bit too dense for comfort reading). Also, what about Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy? Or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.

  4. A Bear Called Paddington Michael Bond
    The Magic Apple Tree Susan Hill
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John le Carre

  5. Absolutely yes to The Magic Apple Tree! And I’ve lost mine – or rather, I’ll have leant it to someone, and I’ve forgotten who… I still read chunks of it to audiences at carol concerts, and there’s never a dry pew in the house….
    Otherwise, my comfort reading is distinctly lowbrow compared with some of these! I return to the whodunnit – I never want extremes of emotion or action when I’m feeling femma…
    So – Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands, for its humour as much as anything; ditto, D.L.Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon.
    Yes to John Le Carre – especially Tinker Tailor. Once you know who the baddie is, you can just enjoy the convolutions…
    Anything by Anthony Price – for espionage country, there’s relatively little of the car-chase, one can just enjoy the characters, the sense of place, and the cerebration.
    Puck of Pook’s Hill….. there’s a connection there… answers on a postcard….
    How about something totally non-pc? Buchan’s Greenmantle, and Huntingtower!
    And Bugles and a Tiger, must look that out….

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