Saturdays @ the South: Comfort Reads

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Today is the last day of Banned Books Week, which we’ve been celebrating here on the blog daily, in various ways and from various perspectives because it is a broad topic to consider. You would think that since the South kicked off the Banned Books Week-bonanza last week that I would have something to say in summary or to end the discussion. However, I’d prefer not to have a finale for Banned Books Week, because, despite the well-deserved celebration discussions shouldn’t end just because the advertised week is over. They should be ongoing and I highly encourage that. So I’m going to leave banned books open-ended and start fresh with a new post….

Autumn is when the leaves begin to turn, the evenings become chilly while the days remain warm, foods turn into a pumpkin-fest and thoughts begin to turn to things of comfort as we steel ourselves for the upcoming winter. To me, the fall is a season for comfort: the foods that warm me as I take out my soup pot (temporarily retired during the steamy summer days), the sweaters and boots that keep me cozy, the blankets pulled from the cedar chest and the books that seem to encompass all of these things.

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I don’t mean books that depict fall in a certain way, mention autumn in the title or feature the season prominently. The books I’m talking about are what’s affectionately referred to as “comfort reads.” Most regular readers have books that fall into this category, and they’re more than just favorite books. Comfort reads can take many forms, but generally they refer to those books that give you a type of emotional support. The ones that you can pick up and feel like you’re being welcomed to a familiar place by people you feel know you well. It’s the book equivalent of a friend you haven’t seen in years, but somehow, no matter the time that’s passed, you pick up just where you left off and start chatting away. It can make you feel better when you’re stressed or sympathize with you when you’re depressed. A comfort read doesn’t have to be great literature, it just needs to elicit that feeling coming home.

Our awesome librarian at the West Branch talked a bit this week about her favorite books to re-read and I’d bet that at least a couple of those book fall into her “comfort reads” category. As a matter of fact, two of the books she listed happen to be at the very top of a Goodreads list of comfort reads. Authors have comfort reads as well. Perennial librarian favorite Neil Gaiman gave an interview to Reading Rainbow recently (which, despite not being on air anymore is still going strong to promote child literacy and encouraging early readers, much to my inner child’s delight) where he talked about his comfort reads:

We avid readers have “comfort books” the same way other people have “comfort foods”, do you have any “comfort books” that you turn to when you’re sick, or stressed, or depressed?

I do, actually, and they’re an odd little bunch. I can’t really say why I turn to these books. Bleak House by Charles Dickens is definitely one of them. When I was in my twenties Glory Road by Heinlein was my go-to book. I have no idea why, it was just a place I liked to go when I was sad. R.A. Lafferty writes places I like to go to. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is another wonderful place to go.

Like Gaiman and our West Branch librarian, you may go to your comfort reads time an again. Others might be books you’ve read once or twice, but you take comfort knowing that they’re there to welcome you back whenever you need them.

I have a bit of an eccentric list comfort reads list myself. Here are a few books that I go to whenever I need them, for whatever reason:

3554442Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ve lost count as to how many times I’ve read this book (and for that matter, watched the BBC adaptation). P&P is what I read whenever I’ve got a book hangover and don’t know what to read next.  I get swept away in the wit, romance and Regency country dancing and all feels right with the world again. Somehow, this book always guides me back to my reading list.

3237118Hamlet by William Shakespeare

There’s a good chance that you’ll stop reading here thinking I’ve lost my mind. I’m willing to run that risk. When I’m feeling sad or depressed, I’ve turned to Hamlet because my problems seem to pale by comparison. Sometimes you feel the need to commiserate and books can do that for you. This one makes me feel like I’m commiserating with a cousin and Shakespeare’s poetry makes it sound as though Hamlet is commiserating right back.

1504665Middlemarch by George Eliot

I’ve only red this book once, but every time I picked it up to get further into the story, I got this warm feeling washing over me like I was visiting a small country town where everyone knew everyone else and the people there welcomed me into their little community with open arms (It’s kind of like the atmosphere at the South Branch, actually). The stories are compelling, the prose is beautiful and this is one where I know ithat if I ever want to go back to Middlemarch, it will be there for me, with the same folks and the same town waiting to welcome me back again.

1912752Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Lest you only think I read classics for comfort (though I admit I do find the most comfort in classics) this book is one I go back to whenever I feel the need to escape. Not the kind of escape that a beach read offers. This is a curl-up-under-the-covers and take-me-away kind of book. It’s dense and rich with themes that envelop me like a warm blanket. I always feel immensely satisfied after reading this book, even though the ending somewhat ambiguous.

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

You thought you could get away from a mention of this one, didn’t you? It keeps popping back up because this book had a profound effect on me. I was utterly pulled into the world Clarke created as completely as any book I’ve ever read. This is one of the books I know I will turn to for comfort when the real world just seems a bit much and I’ll journey with Jonathan and Arabella Strange, Gilbert Norrell and John Segundus as though they were members of my own circle of friends.

Clearly my list of comfort reads (and there are many more) aren’t for everyone, but I do believe that everyone who enjoys reading has their own list of books that they turn to for comfort, in their own way. Till next week, dear readers, pull out the blanket, make a cup of cocoa or tea and cozy up to a read that gives you comfort.

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