Comfort Reads

Black and white photograph of a kitten covered by pie dough in a pie. For Comfort Reads by Malin James

Kitty Pie by John McEnery

A comfort read is a book, author, story or snippet that, you guessed it, you find comforting. By “comforting” I don’t mean that it necessarily makes you happy. It also doesn’t have to be inspirational or uplifting. A comfort read can be dark, superficial or random. You can read it in its entirety or take a quick dip into a specific chunk.

Comfort reads are the literary equivalent of a teddy bear and, like a teddy bear, they give you that cozy, quilted, everything-is-going-to-be-okay feeling. I have a friend who used to read H.P. Lovecraft when she felt blue or depressed. She said that the wrongness made her feel better, if only for a little while. She was a tough, pragmatic, practical woman. Lovecraft was her teddy bear, and Lovecraft never failed her.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about comfort reads and how valuable they are. Personally, 2016 has been rough. Unfortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had an equally hard time of it. Whether from job loss, divorce, death, trauma or very bad luck, I’m far from the only person who took some knocks this year. Add that to the social and political climate we find ourselves in and crawling into a book for a break sounds pretty damn good.

Of course, the thing I have to keep telling myself is that there’s a difference between a break and becoming a hermit (though my, how tempting it is…). My friend was right when she said that Lovecraft’s wrongness made things better, but that’s temporary magic. Reality will always be there, waiting for you to address it. That’s why dipping into a book that’s comforting and familiar is a great way to split the difference between taking a mental beating and completely checking out.

Comfort reads aren’t necessarily favorite books or authors (though they can be). They’re individual, self-selected bits of time out of time. They may be as long as a whole book or as short as a page, but the main thing is that they are both finite and personally comforting. They give you time and space to recharge before jumping back into reality, and that can make a huge difference when you desperately need an emotional break while handling Important Things That Must Be Done Soon.

I know it sounds obvious, but comfort reads serve an important function. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my other blog that touched on the fact that there’s only so much stress the brain can absorb before it numbs to the stressor. Eventually, your mind gets tired of resisting so you either disengage or get swamped by whatever’s going on. It’s right about when I hit that overwhelmed place that I reach for a comfort read.

I’m an ex-bookseller and a former librarian, so my impulse is always (seriously, always) to make book recommendations, but I’m not going to do that here. You can’t really predict or recommend comfort reads. While my friend’s go-to in tough times was H.P. Lovecraft, other people probably wouldn’t get the same gentle fuzzies from Elder Gods and ichor. Conversely, no other writer of eldritch wrongness ever worked for her (sorry Clive Barker). Just like you can’t predict which blanket your kid is going to love to literal pieces, no one can predict your lexicographic woobie. You kind of just end up with it.

Personally, I have three comfort reads. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a handful of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Mina’s chapters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While these books are some of my favorites, that’s not what makes them my comfort reads. I love The English Patient, but it’s not a comfort read – not for me, at least. Same with Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Parker, cheap romances and The Thin Man. I love those books so very much, but they aren’t the literary equivalent of a duvet and hot chocolate on a rainy night. Everyone’s comfort space is different, which is why people find theirs when they need it. Need is the driver, and it doesn’t always lead you where you think it will.

While it’s incredibly important not to check out of your life til the clouds part, it’s also important to allow yourself a little mental slack if you’re running off the rails. There are, quite legitimatley, times when you just can’t absorb anymore. That’s when sinking into something comforting and familiar can make the difference between staying engaged and becoming a permanent hermit. It’s the break you allow yourself so you can come back out and tackle the Elder Gods of life.

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On Divisive Issues, or The Value of the Big Three

In honor of the holidays, I’d like to take a look at what I’m going to call The Big Three – the three topics of conversation that everyone everywhere knows to avoid at social gatherings, holidays and especially family dinners:

Sex. Religion. Politics.

The Big Three can be, to put it mildly, divisive, and it’s for this reason that they are often studiously avoided in favor of weather-based small talk. They are naturally controversial – unless all of the conversationalists agree. If the majority of people in the room hold them same beliefs, then these issues are a wonderful way to bond and confirm one’s acceptance in the ideological fold. The ideology itself is secondary to re-affirming a sense of belonging; or, to put it another way, it is the conduit through which this re-affirmation is performed. This is a pretty universal phenomena – doesn’t matter if the ideology is conservatism, atheism, bisexuality or Catholic Pro-Choice Buddhist Libertarianism. But I digress…

The point is that, despite accepted wisdom, and in the face of violently clashing ideologies, tons of people dive right into The Big Three, especially during the holidays, family dinner be damned. And this is important, I think.

What makes us bring up gay marriage when we know Aunt Janice believes homosexuality is a sin? Why talk about The Diary of Anne Frank when we’ve heard Uncle Ed say that Hitler “took a good idea too far”? Is it a simple impulse to provoke? To get a reaction? Or is there something deeper at work? I believe that there is and I suspect it comes back to ideology, and the fact that most of the ideologies currently held by humans on this planet involve, in some way, sex, religion, or politics, is just a happy coincidence.

A note before I go on: I don’t oppose ideology. I’m full of ideologies, as are most human beings. To believe in something is, in fact, to be human, so I in no way fault humans for having beliefs. The trouble isn’t in the ideology, but in the inability to see past it, to the views of others.

Okay. As I was saying, I suspect that this impulse to engage The Big Three, particularly in contexts having to do with extended families, roasted meats and lots of alcohol, has to do with both the assertion of our own ideology, and the deep-rooted need to have that ideology ratified by non-believers. Or, to put is simply, to change Aunt Janice’s goddamned mind. This is clearly not going to happen because she feels the same way about you. But we have the impulse to try.

This impulse is important, because it’s an impulse to engage. While The Big Three can, and often do, lead to uncomfortable interactions, they also prompt engagement, rather than the blind ratification of long-held beliefs.

Sex, politics and religion. They provoke and challenge. Their divisiveness prompts the impulse to engage. That is where their potential lies, but their value lies in going one step farther, past simple engagement, to a place of thinking and of discourse, where we can allow our own ideologies to be challenged, even as we challenge the ideologies of others.