Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Comfort Reads

(For those of you still wondering, one of my comfort reads authors is E. Nesbit, who is the answer to my What Woman Author Am I? post.)

Litlove wrote a post on comfort reads a few years back, and when I read it, I knew exactly what she meant by a "comfort read." It's a book (or author) you turn to, like macaroni and cheese, or mashed potatoes (especially if you're Pete, who recently wrote his own post about comfort reading), or a grilled cheese sandwich, when you wish you were four years old again, could sit in some loving person's lap, and be rocked to sleep. Some of the books Litlove chose were ones I immediately recognized as my own comfort reads, and ever since, I've been thinking about which books would be on such a list of mine.

I never got around to making that list, though, until now. Early last week, I said to Bob, "I think I'm going to go around the house and make myself a pile of comfort reads. I'm probably going to need them for a while." Well, come to find out, our house is full of comfort reads. I could have made piles of 100s of books. I decided I was only going to choose ten, though, which means I needed to do something to help me narrow my selections. Finally I decided, maybe I ought to choose ten that I haven't read in at least ten years. So, out went Three Men in a Boat (a book I turn to in almost every crisis), as did all of David Sedaris and I Capture the Castle. Also, I'm afraid to say, all of Jane Austen and Dracula (yes, that is a comfort read for me).

Speaking of Dracula, I realized while doing this little exercise, that I was choosing some rather odd books. My stack didn't look at all like I thought it would. Where was Louisa May Alcott? Where was Daddy Long Legs? Where were Lee Smith and Kaye Gibbons? And what about Janet Evanovich? That was when I realized that sometimes comfort reading isn't always about the book itself. Sometimes it's about the when, why, and how you read it the first time. Sometimes, it was the book that you remember got you through a horrible breakup (several Tom Sharpe novels), or it was the book you were reading when you were accepted into the college of your choice (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), or maybe the person who became your best friend at the place where you had your first real job gave it to you for Christmas, and you read it on the airplane flying from Connecticut "home" to North Carolina (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). For some reason, I tend to associate vivid memories with many of the books I read, so that, for instance, I can say, "Oh yeah, I was reading that when we were on that ship coming back from the Bahamas, and one of our fellow passengers said, 'Wait till you get to the ending. The way it ends is just great. They changed it in the movie, which was lame.'" (The book was Stephen King's Firestarter, and my fellow passenger was right.)

So, here are the ten books I chose. I think what I might do is read one a month for the next ten months (of course, the minute I announce a plan like that, it goes asunder, so maybe I won't).

Aesop's Fables
Oh, did I love Aesop when I was a child! I guess it was the animals in the tales, who were so much more believable, somehow, than a lot of animals portrayed in popular children's books when I was young. I also think, though, that I've always been drawn to allegory and things of a proverbial nature. I haven't read Aesop since I was a child. I imagine these days, I will find lots of people I know in the tales.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
I was reading this on that 1996 trip to Bonaire (see The Enchanted Castle below). Our friend mentioned below had also read this one and loved it. She told me to read King's A Grave Talent, which she said was also very good, but I never have. I was more drawn to this particular series. What could be more comforting than an aging Sherlock Holmes acting as apprentice to a young girl who has wits to match his own?

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
Here's the incredibly sweet story about this one: in 1996, Bob and I celebrated our one-year anniversary (September 23) early by taking a trip to Bonaire to scuba dive during the Labor Day week. We met a wonderful elderly couple who'd been diving there for years. She was a children's book collector. We talked about E. Nesbit, and she told us that William Morrow was reprinting Nesbit in these fabulous new editions. I told her my favorite E. Nesbit as a child had been The Enchanted Castle. On September 23, back home from our trip, we received a package from her. It was the new edition of The Enchanted Castle. I re-read it when it arrived, but I haven't read it since.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri
I haven't read this one since I was a child, but it always brought me great comfort. I might find it to be too treacly at this point in my life, but then I will just focus on the goats (I seem to remember that goats played a major role in the book. However, I know from past experience that events/characters I thought played major roles in books as a child often turn out to have barely a mention in the book when I re-read it as an adult. Let's hope the goats play a major, non-treacly role if I plan to focus on them).

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
First of all, this book was introduced to me by a guy on whom I had a massive crush for years, but I didn't read it. Then, at another point in my life, another guy on whom I had a crush recommended it. Remembering those silly young crushes are comforting enough in and of themselves, but there's also nothing more comforting to me than laughing at the absurd. Oh, and mice and dolphins who are smarter than humans? That's my kind of world interpretation.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
This one really doesn't need any explanation, does it?

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
I read this the first year after college. That was a relatively difficult year for me, as I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, was working in a very emotionally draining position with dyslexic children, and I was living in a house full of boys. I often retreated to my room, locked the door, and read (in fact, two other "comfort reads" came out of that year, Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides and John Irving's The Cider House Rules). I read this book, called a friend of mine, and said, "Let's go to Thomas Wolfe's house." We did. I hope I love the book as much this time around (I've been told it isn't as good if you read it past a certain age. We'll see).

N or M by Agatha Christie
This was the first Agatha Christie I ever read at age 12 (my first foray into "grownup" books). I then went on to read everything in our house and everything our public library had to offer that we didn't have in our house. What's more comforting than Agatha Christie? Tommy and Tuppence are still my favorite Christie characters, and I've always wished there'd been more books that featured them.

by Gary Paulsen
Who would have thought that a book about the Iditarod could have someone laughing until the tears streamed down her cheeks? Especially a book by Paulsen, who is better known for writing rather grim, realistic YA novels? Certainly not I, when I read an interesting review of this one while working at the library and decided to put a reserve on the just-ordered book. I finished it and immediately began forcing it on everyone I knew. It's more than hilarious. It's also very wise. When I married Bob, I bought him a copy. Everyone should read it. Really. (A few years ago it was made into what looked like a very inferior movie, but never having seen it, I really shouldn't judge.)

The World According to Garp by John Irving
See? This is probably the one that is my oddest choice for "comfort," but somehow, I find Irving to be very comforting. I know he loves Dickens, and for me, he is a 20th/21st-century Dickens -- not always easy to read, but his heart is in the right place, and he's a master at characterization. I love characterization. Also, this is one of those books that once got me through a very rough period in my life.

Now, I've got to figure out which one to read first. Any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

Ah, comfort reads. I've been doing a bit of that, too. Heidi is still good (I last read it only a few years ago), and I don't know if you know but there is also Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children.
And I also love The Enchanted Castle, but Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse is my comfort read.

litlove said...

What wonderful and unusual comfort reads! I am hastily transcribing your list onto mine - there are several books there I'd like to read, too (surprise, surprise!). I've just finished a comfort read and found that it sort of perked up my faith in reading, as well as making me feel better. Really, someone should hand out trophies for them!

Anonymous said...

What a fun list and I love your comments on each one. I have never read Heidi but I had a copy of the book when I was a kid. It was a hardcover with the cover printed on the book instead of a dustjacket. It had very green grass, some little alpine flowers and in the center, Heidi in a colorful dress hugging a snowy white goat. I loved the cover and I think I never read the book because I was afriad it coudn't live up to the cover art.

Emily Barton said...

MFS, hmmm...maybe I ought to start with Heidi, then? And I was aware of the sequels, although I'm not sure I ever actually read them. Also, I'd forgotten that you'd recommended The Little White Horse ages ago. I'll have to get a copy of that, as well.

Litlove, maybe we ought to start an annual Comfort Read award.

Stef, now THERE'S an interesting take on judging a book by its cover. And judging by your description of your book's cover, I guess the goats do play a significant role.

knitseashore said...

Put them all on the floor, and pick up each one one at a time, and instinct will tell you which one of the ten you need to read most. Then stack the other nine on your bedside table, because somehow just having them close by helps.

Miss Pettigrew is probably my current comfort read, though I've read it only once. I also highly recommend Joan Bauer for strong young women who succeed, if you are in need of that type of story.

Watson Woodworth said...

See, I was guessing Virginia Woolf.
Who does have her very own Indigo Girls song.

Emily Barton said...

Ms.Knits, oh yes, Miss Pettigrew is a PERFECT comfort read. And it's been ages since I read any Joan Bauer...

Nigel, and that is a far better guess (and probably would have been my guess a few years back) than E. Nesbit. Who would've ever thought a popular -- well, in her day. Not so much anymore -- children's author like Nesbit lived such an unconventional life?

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of comfort books, too. Your mention of "Daddy Long Legs" set my reading heart aflutter remembering the sequel "Dear Enemy." I really enjoyed Webster's clever use of all letters to tell a story...something I've been thinking about trying for many years.

Happy reading!

Emily Barton said...

HOW, oh yes, both those books of Webster's are wonderful. When I read Daddy Long Legs for the first time as a kid, I immediately set about trying to write my own book that was all letters (I did that a lot when I was a kid. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, lots of authors would have been very flattered had they known how I spent my days as a child/teenager).

Rebecca H. said...

Oh, you've reminded me of how much I loved Heidi when I was a kid. That's one I tend to forget, but I read it many times. Part of my love of mountains comes from that book.

Susan said...

Oh, what a great list! I'm not sure I could come up with 10 comfort books.....I tend to reread so seldom. I like reading your reasons for why you chose them. Mostly, I'm hoping that the books do comfort you because I really wish i could come and share a cup of tea with you and help you figure out what you want to do next. It is always awful being rejected by work (which being laid off always feels like, no matter the reason!) and it's frightening.
I do like that you include Dracula normally in your comfort reads! and I like tommy and Tuppence too from Christie, my long-time favourite characters. See? We could be book-sisters :-D

Pete said...

I am always amazed at how you can remember what you were doing when you first read a book or heard a particular song. Great choice, although I think I'll skip on the Heidi (although just thinking of Heidi makes me think of yodelling for some reason, which is rather fun). Books and tea and bed are great comforters (especially in combination). I just recieved five in the post so am positively purring.