Tidings of Comfort
Note: I chose this painting because I liked it. It was only after I’d typed in the painter’s name (Louis Comfort Tiffany) that I realized I’d doubled up on the entendres. Pure serendipity.
With a to-be-read pile that stacks up to the sky and threatens my continued survival (it’s on my bedside table, and in an earthquake it would surely topple over and mash me flat) it perhaps makes no sense that I sometimes have to stop what I’m doing and start comfort reading. And it’s not always because I need comforting, in the “world is too much with me, gimme my blankie and my thumb and I’ll be in the corner” sense. So why?
Sometimes my mind is too full of Other Stuff™ to be able to fit in someone else’s new worlds and ideas. Sometimes there’s something in that much-read work that I recognize will help me unpick a writing problem of my own. Sometimes it’s just been a Day, and I want something reliably cheery, or chewy, or full of whatever quality I think I want in that moment. I was thinking about what books make my comfort reading list, and which, over the years, have slipped off it.
There are some books that I don’t expect ever to budge from the list, like Jane Eyre and all of Jane Austen (I’m a cliché, but I’m cool with it). There are some books I suspect will stay on the list: many of Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, about half of Laurie R. King’s Holmes and Russell books, most of Dick Francis’s mysteries. And for some reason, The Name of the Rose, which is comforting in a sort of “you have to stay alert every second, but God, you keep finding new stuff” sort of way. (Plus, Eco does some technical things in that book that I would love to write well enough to pull off some day.)
I find, asking around, that mysteries are on many people’s comfort reading list. They deliver a defined moral universe, they offer a puzzle, and with series mysteries like the Sayerses and the Kings, a return to characters who are well-drawn and familiar. And Dick Francis’s characters, while different from book to book, are all of a type: competent with a sound moral compass and just a smidgen of neurosis. You don’t necessarily know what the end of the story will be, but you have a solid sense, going in, of where the book will end up. Which leaves the reader free to enjoy the getting-there of the book.
The books that have slipped off my comfort list? All of Georgette Heyer, I’m sad to say. I probably got my lifetime allotment of Heyer before I turned 30 (and, ex officio, I know too much about the historical English Regency not to get hung up in her inventions). I miss being able to slip into a Heyer novel they way I used to do. Another lost comfort: Red Sky at Morning, the book that saved my life when I was a teenager. There are lines from that book that are still in my daily vocabulary, but I read it to tatters, and can’t face it any more. And the last thing you need in a comfort read is to feel an obligation. Comfort reads pull you to them with the promise of, well, comfort.
I got the weirdest, loveliest compliment the other day. An acquaintance told me that one of my books is on her Comfort Reads list. That’s a lovely thing to hear, but what threw me was Acquaintance’s choice of comfort read from my brief oeuvre: The Stone War. Which is a book I’m proud of, but… it’s an apocalypse-in-New-York-City book. With monsters, one angel, many deaths, unrequited love, and a whole lot of iron and stone animals coming to life to take part in an epic battle for the heart of the city. It would not be the first of my books I would select as a comfort read (the New York Times reviewer called it “hard to read, hard to love, and hard to forget.” But he apparently meant it in a good way).
In the way that one doesn’t look a gift in the mouth, I didn’t grill Acquaintance on why this was the book she chose to read when the going got tough. It’s enough that it works that way for her. And I find myself unreasonably pleased to know that I have provided that for her, as a sort of payback to the universe for all the times when a comfort read has made all the difference in my life.
I share your choice of Wimsey and Dick Francis, but I also include Mary Stewart’s romantic suspenses in my comfort reads. I don’t think it’s just because I know them well and like them very much. They’re complex enough to occupy my mind and engage my interest, thus distracting me. Re-reads produce rewards, because there are lovely details and layers to discover.
I read Stewart over and over when I was younger; I really should re-read her again soon. A few years ago I picked up Nine Coaches Waiting, flipped forward, and realized that I knew the description of the foods she brings upstairs to the little boy by heart. Stewart and Jane Aiken Hodge were two writers who made me realize how rich a romantic novel could be.