When you search for images of comfort reads, there are books, yes, but there are also beds and duvets and cozy blankets, coffee and tea and pillows, cats and bathrobes and slippers.
There is a certain kind of novel that appears on lists of recommended comfort reads as well. And it is almost always a novel, though memoir can also be comforting. It has a good chance of being British too. I’m not sure what it is about America that isn’t comforting (well, actually I do know: individualism, capitalism, inequity, and the cult of productivity don’t make for comfort reads, and what else is any Great American Novel about? People are rightly appalled by 45’s embrace of economy over humanity, but what is more quintessentially and fundamentally American than the sacrifice of human beings for economic gain?), but American novels tend not to fit the bill.
My own list of comfort reading certainly skews British. There’s Jane Austen, of course, and Nancy Mitford and Barbara Pym. I Capture the Castle is prime comfort reading, as is another longtime Virago favorite, Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths (another novel I would very much love to live in for a bit). The Enchanted April and Hilary McKay’s Casson family series and Terry Pratchett’s series about Tiffany Aching. Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road.
But I have also reread Meghan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series several times (and feel ready for another reread soon) and have practically memorized Robin McKinley’s Beauty and The Outlaws of Sherwood. Laurie Colwin’s collection of essays, Home Cooking, is a reliable comfort read. In fact, I just picked up Home Cooking last night and reread the first two essays. Her good teachings about the pleasures of being a homebody feel very current.
There is comfort in the close acquaintance we develop with characters and setting in a series and with the patterns of genre writing. I don’t read mystery anymore, but it was prime comfort reading throughout grad school, when I couldn’t read British novels for pleasure because I was reading them for study. I made my way through all of Tony Hillerman and Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George and Elizabeth Peters and Laura Lippman and Marcia Muller. My son is never not rereading Harry Potter (as narrated so marvelously by Jim Dale on audio.) “I would give up everything, even basketball, to go to Hogwarts,” he said wistfully the other day. And I understood just what he meant.
Mostly, I think, there is comfort in familiarity. My comfort reads are rereads, and there is a sense of coming back home when I open their covers. They are the literary equivalent of the cozy blanket and the warm cup of tea and the purring lap of cat. And they feel very necessary right now.