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The delicious satisfaction of comfort reads

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On The Guardian they used to have a section for Comfort Reads. The sort of books you tucked into for their bolstering and trusty qualities. The sort that recalibrate and propel you into a place that makes you feel okay or even joyful about the world.

They stopped this column – from what it looks like –  in 2014. It’s kind of a shame.

But this idea of comfort reads got me wondering about the books that mean a lot to us. For instance, I noticed a comment on one of the Comfort Reads columns which declared that To Kill A Mockingbird was the best comfort read of all time. I thought that was interesting. And also feel differently.

And then I got thinking that some of these sorts of reads will be perhaps be common to us all , while others are not and are more of a marker of time and place than just about the feeling a book can give you.

There’s some science behind the appeal of comfort reads, it turns out. Research suggests that reading fiction gives us a sense of belonging, boosts empathy and helps us to connect to others … and ourselves. Put even more simply certain books – like our comfort reads – make us feel more secure and human.

“Books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment,” researchers Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young told The Guardian.

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world,” the University of Toronto’s Keith Oatley said in the same Guardian piece. He notes that books help us to practice the sort of thinking that teaches us about talking with and responding to others.

Which sounds comforting, right?

My Comfort Reads are hard to settle on. And a work in progress. But I think the following would be on my list …

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. A brilliant story well told … the sort of book you want to climb into. Max is reading this at the moment and reminding me of some of the brilliant bits.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte OK, not traditionally comforting as such, but a trusty book you can disappear into … for me at least. I return to it again and again and have about 7 copies in various editions.

Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe. Such a funny, funny eccentric book I love it so much. Super cheering and also cleverly observed. A sort of Enid Blyton for grown-ups.

The New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser. I mean. It’s like a big story about life, family, friendship and food when you think of it.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. An independent and delightfully naughty role model. Much adored and definitely a comfort.

The Charlie and Lola books by Lauren Child. I loved reading them to my kids and I think their sweet humanity was always more of a comfort to me than them!

Danny the Champion of the World by Road Dahl. I adored this book as a kid and each time I think of it now I think of that cosy caravan with a warm stove and supper cooking and cups of tea.


There are also books that I turned to for comfort as a child, that I wonder whether I’d love quite so much now. The Famous Five. The Faraway Tree. The Secret Seven. Just the titles remind me of comfy times and I’m happy to think of them as childhood comforts rather than lifelong ones. Because things have changed, you know?

What are your favourite comfort reads? Which books would be on your list?

x pip

PS: There is a great Comfort Reading thread on Reddit here, if you fancy gobbling that up!

9 Comments

  • Reply
    Alison
    June 13, 2019 at 3:47 PM

    Elizabeth Peters “Crocodile on the Sandbank”; Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House in the Big Woods”; “The Saturdays” and “The Penderwicks” both series and I can’t think of the authors right now, James Herriot, another series!

  • Reply
    Rachel
    June 12, 2019 at 10:26 PM

    I love Mary Wesley – wikipedia says she’s been described as ‘Jane Austen plus sex’; apparently she disliked the description but I do think it works. I also comfort read Diana Wynne Jones, young adult fiction with lots of magic and her sharp and otherworldly take on the world.

  • Reply
    Kerry
    June 12, 2019 at 7:56 PM

    A favourite comfort “read” is listening to the audiobooks of Harry Potter (Stephen Fry as the narrator)

  • Reply
    Kate Nancarrow
    June 12, 2019 at 1:28 AM

    I’ll read anything. That’s my comfort.
    And oft my downfall-only in that people in the past have thought poorly of me for wanting to read so much. I know, now, clearly, as an elder of 44, that that is sheer buffoonery. On their part. Obvs. Currently reading far too much and then never enough. I do so enjoy any Pip missive, tome, blog or cereal box… keen to add to my special shelf of inspiring reads/reflections/activities/nostalgia which is The Pip in my own personal dewy (sp?) system. if you’re thinking of bringing out some moosli or somesuch goodness, I’ll be reading the box off of that, too. Heck – I should read professionally or something. Is that a career choice? Asking for my 17yo self.

  • Reply
    Michelle H
    June 11, 2019 at 10:24 PM

    My comfort reads are any and all of L.M Montgomery books. I have collected many over the years and have a few prized 1st editions which I absolutely love reading not only for the story but because they are firsts. I image the excitement of the first reader and how much L.M.Montgomery was thrilled to have her words in print.

    If you love the Anne stories then you must check out the other books written by Montgomery, they all have incredible characters and lives within those pages.

  • Reply
    Isabel
    June 11, 2019 at 9:38 PM

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding
    AGREE – Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. That dark wood! The poachers! The pheasants and their raisins!
    Helen Garner’s short stories – Postcards from Surfers

    Love this post, and the photo of the cat lying on Jane Eyre!
    x

  • Reply
    Reannon
    June 11, 2019 at 8:03 PM

    My biggest comfort reads might be frowned upon as very low brow but that’s ok because I have never read books to impress people, only ever for myself (or school teachers). So here they are-
    Most chic-lit, especially Maeve Binchy, Monica McInerney, Marian Keyes. And in more recent times, Jenny Coglan. I love their predictably, their lightness, their (mostly) happy ever after.
    Twilight. I don’t know why & it’s mainly the first book that I’ll reread but there you go b
    How to Build a Girl & How to Be Famous. These books are just bloody brilliant & Dolly delights me no end!
    And I won’t lie Pip, when I’m feeling a bit down or life is a bit trying I pick up Craft for the Soul. I have pages marked & I might only read a few but they make me happy & give me something good to focus on 🙂

  • Reply
    Alice
    June 11, 2019 at 5:44 PM

    The world according to Garp, or probably anything by John Irving, the characters are always so weird and beautifully flawed, and Irving gives his characters decades. There’s always comedy and tragedy, absurdity and oh so much aching humanity.

  • Reply
    kate
    June 11, 2019 at 4:07 PM

    For the last, quite a few years, I seem to have got sucked down the self help rabbit hole. Funnily I don’t actually think it’s been all that helpful. So this year I’ve been making an effort to read more fiction, I do love a good tale that sweeps me along and leaves me wanting to know all but at the same time trying not to rush because I don’t want it to end.
    I used to read, oh I’m too embarrassed to name the author, but think bodice ripper, step up from mills and boon type romance for my comfort read when I didn’t want to think. I reread a couple this year and found them so patronise and belittling to women that I gave them away. I wish I hadn’t gone back for the reread and just kept them as comforting, guilty pleasure in my mind. For that reason I won’t be going back to any of my childhood comfort reads.
    There aren’t very many books that I do reread.
    I’m off to check out the reddit thread and also to put My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. on hold at the library.
    cheers Kate

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