Anyone with writer’s block will totally lack sympathy, but I am having to stop myself from doing any writing. I have two outlines on the go, but truly, seriously, no time to get caught up in it. I know, that’s the ‘modern sickness’, isn’t it, being ‘too busy’? It can end up defining us, the stress of our lives become a boast, even a competition. But I am not saying I am in the state of ‘too busy’ all the time, simply this is one of those points where life matters are at a nexus of having a lot to do across work, domestic, and family areas. To put that in perspective, I am off on holiday in less than two weeks, so how bad can it be? Still, something has had to give.
Instead, I have been finding a pleasant distraction in choosing and downloading or ordering (I am, capriciously, both e-reader user and paper enthusiast), the books I’ll take on holiday (I can do one a day on a vacation, easy). It’s a judicious balance between locating bargains (which I want to read) and deciding when to splurge a bit (on books I want to read even more).
And in the meantime, whilst I wearily ride out the current period of competing demands, I turn to comfort reading.
To me, the ‘comfort read’ has two main types with one common characteristic: that of predictability. It is, of course, from that predictability that the reassurance, i.e. comfort, derives. And it can come from either something you have read before and are returning to (or in some cases keep returning to), or from ‘knowing what to expect’, such as genre fiction, or a writer with a specific style or narrow range.
Re-reading books is not for everyone. I get that – so little time, so many books to read, and I rarely return to the same book twice myself. However, when I do, it can be more than once. It may not be everyone’s idea of a comfort read, but every few years I have returned to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Perhaps, in a way, there is familiarity for me as I grew up a few miles away from its setting; I know, and I love, the dark moorland and rugged hills. Then again, I first read and loved it in my teens, and still have that same teen-age copy, so no wonder it feels like home. The plot is so wonderfully preposterous—there really hasn’t been a successful film or TV adaptation (go on then, name it). Anyway, it beats thinking about my first boyfriend (yuck).
Another book I have returned to several times is Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993) – and I really don’t know why. She’s a favourite writer, yes, I admire the book, but there must be something else. Why that one? Perhaps it’s the comfort and consolation of female friendship depicted, or perhaps a sense of resolution at the end. A further example is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), a slice of melodrama that’s wonderfully written (I have met several people that keep returning to this one). Finally, as I have mentioned in a previous blog (here) I have returned several times over the years (again, since my teens, when I took a tattered Penguin edition from the shelf) to Stella Gibbons’s hilarious and enduring Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
One of the second type of comfort reading for me is Anne Tyler. Don’t get me wrong, she rarely fails to please, her studies of interpersonal relationships, family eco-systems, and human drives are second to none; her common themes of times passage, love, loss and loneliness are wistful and deeply moving—and certainly not un-demanding. But with her favoured settings in terms of location, class, and ‘dysfunctional’ family set-up, I do feel I know what I am getting.
In terms of genre reading, I had never particularly been attracted to thrillers before. Until last summer, that is. It was an emotionally challenging time, and I gobbled down one after another of those ‘twisty thrillers’ that continue to proliferate (paranoia about the people next door, across the road, the nanny, brother-in-law, teacher; dreadful and hidden secret in the past, etc…). Some were very good, some less so, but there was an odd, dark escapism, and they were undemanding. A sort of literary fast food. Not that I am knocking genre fiction! It may be fairer to say, like something simple and home-cooked, of the ‘bangers and mash’ or ‘mac and cheese’ variety.
Because they have something in common, comfort reading and comfort eating, don’t they? They are something we turn to in times of stress and tiredness, and perhaps emotion, seeking reassurance, familiarity. In comfort eating, we’re not likely to turn to that new edgy and experimental fusion restaurant. No, it’s good old pizza, tomato soup, ice-cream (vanilla or chocolate, that is, not snail and tonka bean). Like those homespun and often childhood favourite dishes, our comfort reads never let us down.
What are your comfort reads, whether a favourite author, genre, or book you keep returning to?
Main picture: Suzy Hazelwood; pizza photo by Muffin, both via Pexels