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The appeal of comfort reading

It might be something from your childhood or something you discovered more recently but chances are you’ve read it numerous times, and it warms your heart as soon as you open it. On World Book Day, Rosie Ifould looks at the appeal of the comfort read

by Psychologies

To research this piece, I took an old friend to bed. A kindred spirit, you might say. For almost 30 years I have looked in on her every so often, to catch up on her exploits, from dramas with cake baking and escaped cows, to the tragic death of her friend Matthew, and her romance with an old school rival, via a dalliance with Roy Gardener, a man with suitably melancholy eyes. I am, of course, talking about Anne Shirley, better known as Anne of Green Gables.

I first discovered her creator LM Montgomery on my grandmother’s bookshelves as a child, and spent all my pocket money on my own copies, which chart Anne’s life from 11 years of age to middle-aged mother of six. I read everything then – even memorising the ingredients on cereal packets if there was nothing else around – but Anne stayed with me, like no other character. The Anne books are my ultimate comfort read.

Social connection and blissful calm

We all have one. Even if we’ve embraced Kindles or iPads, there will be one or two dog-eared old paperbacks that have a special place in our hearts. On a rainy day they never fail to give us exactly the right kind of satisfaction. It isn’t an exaggeration to call a comfort read a friend. ‘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,’ writes psychologist Dr Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo, who found in a recent study that we can derive a similar amount of life satisfaction from feeling that we belong to a fictional world as we can from belonging to a real life group.

What makes a good comfort read? It is impossible to generalise in any respect, bar one – a comfort read is intensely personal. I asked a number of friends to tell me what they read for comfort. A friend who had been working out in Afghanistan mentioned Marie Colvin’s memoirs. Another friend who runs a record label nominated Patrick Neate’s 12 Bar Blues. Others were less obvious but still made perfect sense when I thought about the people who had chosen them – the romantic souls who chose adventure novels, the imagineers who chose Terry Pratchett. Even Bill Bryson, from a friend who writes best-selling suspense thrillers, seemed right when I thought about how funny she is away from her day job.

I collected around a hundred answers, and a few names cropped up over and over again – Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Tove Jansson, and Raymond Chandler – and between them they hold the key ingredients to what a good comfort read often contains. As the proliferation of Adams and Wodehouse mentions proves, humour is important. ‘I often turn to comedy for comfort,’ says Abbie Headon, author of Poetry First Aid Kit (Summersdale, £9.99), a collection of poetic remedies for the lovesick, the bereaved and even the domestically challenged. ‘There are lots of different approaches to comfort reading, and you may want to wallow in a ‘great novel’, but to me something like Douglas Adams is so funny, it’s pure escapism.’

Intricate worlds

Raymond Chandler may have little else in common with Tove Jansson but both created intricate worlds – another hallmark of the comfort read. ‘Chandler’s world is fully imagined, dark and gleaming,’ says the playwright Oliver Emanuel. ‘Some of the plots are wild and confusing but the pulse of the storytelling is perfect. I read him every year.’

Whether it is a valley of funny little Scandinavian Moomins, Discworld, or Hogwarts, our comfort reads are firmly rooted in their own universe. These worlds are so complex that they invite the reader to revisit them over and over, to discover some new detail. Many of the books people chose were either crime novels or children’s classics.

As Headon points out, in both genres it is important that whatever happens, in the end, justice prevails. ‘If ever I’m ill in bed then a volume of Asterix will cheer me no end. No matter what arguments they have they all come together at the end of every story for a great feast. It all works out so well – unless you’re a Roman, of course.’

Our comfort reads are rarely Booker Prize-winners, but we cherish them all the same, and there is always a bond between two lovers of the same story. Perhaps that is why so many of us choose books that remind us of our parents.

‘The day I graduated, I sank, in clichéd fashion, into a mire of depression,’ says Shaista Tayabali, a writer who runs the blog Lupus in Flight about life with chronic illness. ‘My degree was in English literature with a focus on post-colonial, feminist, post-slavery fiction and poetry, so I think I was emotionally drained, not to mention my exhausting daily battle with lupus. My mother suggested I try her favourite author – Georgette Heyer.

‘I started reading, curled up in bed. And light began to sweep around me in giant circles of joy. Venetia, Arabella, Frederica, The Grand Sophy... I remembered why I loved reading for pleasure. Some years later, my father lost his sight. He was hugely resistant to the dreary prospect of audiobooks ­– until I brought home These Old Shades, one of Heyer's earliest Regency romances. A decade has passed and my father has listened and listened again to Heyer's entire repertoire and nothing brings him more joy or comfort. My mother smiles a secret smile of triumph every time she walks by his room and overhears familiar lines like... “It was growing late, and though one might stand on the brink of a deep chasm of disaster, one was still obliged to dress for dinner"…’

‘I can read it over and over again,’ people said, and perhaps that is the most important thing of all. Like prayers, our comfort reading becomes a ritual. I may find something new in the Anne books every time, but the words themselves never change. Our comfort reads are talismans, touchstones, that will never let us down. 

For more about World Book Day, click here

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