So, six hours after I post this I wound up reading an extraordinarily similar entry at Magpie Librarian titled Literary Comfort Food, published back in July. Oops. I’d never even heard of this blog until I stumbled on it by link-hopping, but it’s coincidental enough to make me feel oddly guilty. Anyway, her book list is pretty dissimilar to mine (with the noted exception of the same #4, Sandman!), but I did want to pop in and say: she did it first, she did it better. For a different list of comfort reads, check that entry out, too.
As unemployment is nervewracking with the holidays coming up, the job search hasn’t been the best, and I’ve pretty much been staying in to avoid spending large amounts of cash on useless things, I’ve been doing a lot of nerve-induced reading lately. This made me start to think about how many books I gravitate towards when I’m nervous, because I find them to bemdeeply soothing.
A little bit of background, first. I’ve always been a big reader and for the most part spent my childhood with my nose in a book. I was never one of those kids who read all the classics and had highbrow taste – I read fantasy and sci-fi, a lot of kids books, and anything else I could get my grubby paws on (except romance, of course). I’ve always been a re-reader, too. If I love a book, I’ll read it over and over until the thing just falls to pieces (yes, I know librarians probably hate me). Then I buy another copy and repeat. Furthermore, reading is comforting to me like very few other things are. It’s something I’ve always done when stressed, and I think a big part of it has to do with the feeling of escape. I read through the sucky years everyone had in middle school. I read through breakups. I read through depression, I read through that stressful first job when I kept the heat so low I was shivering because I had no money.* Not only is reading is a huge coping mechanism for me, but I’ve learned that I gravitate towards specific books on my shelf when the bad shit goes down. Some of them are fluffy, some of them are serious, all of them are so familiar to me I can read them half-distracted and still understand everything when I re-focus. These are the books that are like old friends I can always lean on: they feel like they will never, ever change, and you can rely on them to bring you the same level of comfort and familiarity for the rest of your life.
Really, I think this is what reading really is, to those who love it – a stable, unchanging thing that brings comfort and joy like nothing else. So, in the interest of sharing a few of my favorites I looked over my shelves today and picked out my top five comfort books, in no particular order. As I’m a piss-poor book reviewer I’m only going to try to give a one or two sentence summary; mostly I’m focusing on why each book is on the list. I’ve provided Amazon links (I get no kickbacks, are you kidding, this blog has like 10 hits), in case anyone wants more information.
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
If you press me on it, almost every Discworld book could make it on this list.*** They’re easy to read, a little deeper than they appear at first glance, and just the right mixture of humor and satire to take your mind off of whatever problem is rearing its ugly head. But I limited myself to one, because Discworld ain’t everyone’s cup of tea. Small Gods is by far my favorite for comfort reading. It’s not as good as, say, Night Watch, or as funny as half of the others, but for all-out awesomeness it is the best. The basic plot is that a powerful god, Om, winds up trapped in the body of a tortoise because his believers don’t actually really believe in him anymore, just the corrupt and vicious Church of Om. He winds up with just one believer who can hear him, a novice named Brutha. It’s goofy enough to be light but touches on serious enough matters that you’ve got to at least partially think about something other than what’s bugging you. Plus, it manages to satirize organized religion without being too heavy-handed on the atheism.
Side note for other Pratchett fans: Do the stupid freaking blurbs on the back of the books bug you as much as they bug me? Not many blurbs are good, but his make them sound like nothing more than bad buddy-comedies. If someone hadn’t recommended Discworld to me, I would have avoided it based on principle alone after reading some of the “descriptions.”
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Holy shit, this book can be really depressing. But oddly enough, I can’t put it down when things are rough. It’s essentially a story about a missionary family in the Congo in 1959 and 1960 (look it up if you don’t know why that’s notable), all of the hell they wind up going through, and how they forever carry their experiences in Africa with them. It’s truly an incredible book, and I’m only sad that I haven’t really liked anything else Kingsolver has written. I’m not really certain why I love this book so much when down, but I do. I think it’s a comparative thing – I realize that I’ve got it freaking made compared to being a family with no support during a revolution in Africa.
Catch-22 by Joseph Keller
This is probably another “comparatively speaking, my life is awesome” kind of book, but it’s a lot funnier than The Poisonwood Bible. In case you’ve managed to not know what this book is about (how the hell did you do that?) it follows an American bombardier in the Second World War named Yossarian who’s stationed in the Mediterranean. He hates the war and does whatever he can to get the fuck out of flying, with various rates of success. It’s full of extremely black humor and looks at most of the people in Yossarian’s squadron in fair detail, which is really the best part of it. Almost all of them are people who would be considered “good” if you met them, but most of them do horrible things routinely and get away with it because everyone is convinced their behavior is normal.
The whole story is a really great look into how seemingly average actions can be disturbing and sinister, and about the normalization and acceptance of insane things like war. Catch-22 has also got the same thing that Small Gods has got going on: it touches on serious subject matter enough to make you think, but is amusing enough that it’s not overwhelming. Ultimately, though, I really think this book is on my comfort list simply because it was one of my dad’s favorites, and reading it always reminds me of him and his humor.
Added bonus: Milo Minderbinder. He’s the best character in the damn book.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down is just great – it’s a basic plot that is made excellent by the storytelling and the depth that Adams brings to the characters. For Christ’s sake, it’s a book about rabbits founding a warren. Not exactly the Trojan War in subject matter, but Adams has managed to really provide distinct personalities for the rabbits in his group that are close enough to human to be relatable while remaining just non-human enough to remind you they’re animals. He’s also created quite the back story of rabbit religion and myth that just adds a fantastic layer to the whole thing. The book is straight-up awesome, and you will never, ever be able to look at a rabbit the same way again. I gravitate towards it because of how oddly idyllic a lot of it is, and because at it’s core it’s (to me) one of the most British things I’ve ever read. British things make me feel all warm and cozy.
Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Not precisely a book, but this graphic novel series is one of my all-time favorite things to read, rain or shine, happy or sad. As it’s a comic I can’t even attempt to give it a one to two sentence summation, but suffice to say it’s not like any comic you’re thinking of and is… kinda mindblowing. Everything about it just works and some of the art is amazing (The Wake in particular). I’ve never been able to figure out why I find this series comforting, but I think it’s the awesomeness of the sheer scope that just distracts me from whatever I’m going through. Even if you’re not in need of a good comfort-read, I recommend it. Unbelievable.
Whoa, serious posting. Anyway, leave a note in the comments if you have any specific books you comfort-read. Yes, I know it’s all shades of that depressing Blind Melon song, but it’s a hell of a lot better for you than heroin when shit gets you down.
*The only stressful experience I can remember not reading through was when my dad died – in part, I think, because I didn’t want to associate my best comfort novels with that level of grief.**
** Fully admitting that I haven’t finished the book I was reading when I got the call. It was Garth Nix’s Sabriel which is a perennial YA favorite of mine. I tried picking it up the next day and reading the rest, but I got to the part where Sabriel’s dad dies for real and I just couldn’t handle it. Haven’t finished it since, though I have read the sequels several times. I really hope I can get over that mental hurdle, because I’ve adored Sabriel since I first read it in the sixth grade. And – damn skippy I just footnoted a footnote. Don’t say Pratchett never taught me anything.
*** I acquired almost every Discworld book during a six month break that R. and I took in our relationship years and years ago. These books are perfect for dealing with a broken heart because they have so freaking few relationships in them, and the ones that are in them are done in a humorous way that really pokes fun at dating and marriage.