Comfort Books

Comfort Books

When you’re depressed or feeling stressed, there’s no better cure than friends. But when you’re sick, there isn’t much friends can do for you. You’re at home, feeling bad. If you’re too sick to work but not quite at the vegetative stage (like I was for a good chunk of February), you tend to go looking for old friends you can spend time with. Most of us have a small library of movies we tend to watch when we need cheering up and, if you’re a reader, sprinkled through your bookshelves will be a few handfuls of comfort books. These are books you have probably read many times before; books whose stories are as familiar and friendly as the face of an old friend.

Let me introduce you, for example, to Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Josh and Janet of The Magicians. Lev Grossman’s modern fantasy trilogy might have had the simplest elevator pitch in modern history (it’s fuckin Harry Potter for college kids), but it is as full of college-age charm as a dinner at Hogwarts is of grade-school magic. Yes, his magic system is only slightly more coherent than J. K. Rowling’s (point your wand and say a made-up word), but Magicians captures the kind of perfect (if unstable) group friendship that may only happen in college and only if you are very lucky. I’m always happy to hang out and chew the fat and get slowly drunk with Quention obsessing about Fillory, Alice coming slowly out of her shell, charming Eliot pouring the wine, lovable Josh adding just the right note of enthusiastic insanity, and even the acidic and toxic Janet ceaselessly pursuing the wrong kind of mischief. Much the same way I want to revisit Sebastian at Brideshead, drinking wine and talking nonsense to Aloysius. And like the summer at Brideshead, their time at Brakebills is the beating heart of the novel even if, as Eliot observes, the thick plottens when they graduate.

Or perhaps you’d join me for tea and seed-cake with Mr. Bilbo Baggins? The Hobbit is a children’s book, of course, but it is one of the greatest children’s books ever written. And what better time to read a children’s book than when you need some comfort? Bilbo is the finest character Tolkien ever wrote and his hero’s journey is notable not just for how much Bilbo grows, but for how deeply he remains committed to the values of the kindly West. Few heroes have ever been grown so much and yet remained so constant in their values as Mr. Bilbo Baggins. It is a wonderful evocation of the hero’s journey for those of us who love civilized pleasures.

Need something a little edgier but still firmly on the right side of comfortable? I’ll sleep with any Dashiell Hammett story and spending a few days with Sam Spade in search of The Maltese Falcon is surely time well-spent. The novella is as spare as the movie (which does it full justice) and every bit as wonderful. I’ve read the book many times and seen the movie at least as often. And I can no longer read the words without hearing Bogart and Lorre and Greenstreet with every line of dialog (nearly all of which is right out of the book). Spade is the paradigmatic Dashiell protagonist: he stays just on the right side of crooked, and he values that position intensely.

Want a change of pace? A non-noir without a hint of adventure, magic or death? How about Trollope’s Barchester Towers? Mr. Slope may be a villain, but in the best tradition of comfortable novels, his villainy is restricted to some devious maneuvers over clerical patronage and a levelling instinct in his sermons. Zounds!

Trollope, like Austen, is masterful at sketching the manners, morals and makeup of his very bourgeois characters. He is not scornful of their concerns (which, after all, are our concerns — place, position, prestige, relationships) even as he recognizes the essential smallness and humor inherent in our quests around them. His deacons, archdeacons, vicars, bishops, and even his bishop’s wife are all fussing over the same worldly concerns we all share — without in the least making their religion less serious. Mr. Arabin, at the heart of the intellectual concerns of the book, is both deeply serious and conscious that he has left far too many worldly things aside for his own happiness. And in a comedy of manners, few villains have ever been as jointly entertaining as Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie and the dissolution of their partnership is comic genius. I could just as easily have put any of Jane Austen’s books here — all of which I love and two of which are undeniably better — but everyone already knows Pride & Prejudice and Emma.

In the case of all of these books, familiarity breeds contentment. No book I haven’t yet read can be a comfort book no matter how good. First time reads, like new acquaintances, take too much effort when you’re sick. And there’s no denying that I’ll often reach back into my childhood, teen or college years for something really comfortable. Yet there are many books I’ve read repeatedly that I wouldn’t describe as comfortable. Humboldt’s Gift is a book I cherish and have probably read 10–15 times. But while it’s certainly not a hard read (it’s delightful), it always challenges. Bellow is arguing something important (and demanding something too) and there’s too much between the story to let you slip wholly into its arms.

Other books are just flat out too hard or too grim to sweat when you’re feeling down. If I had to read The Road when I was sick, I’m not sure I’d survive the experience.

I’m not a fan in general of the modern author’s tendency to hand out brutal endings to characters you love — especially when those endings seem contrived or unlikely. The ending of Cold Mountain is like having someone spit in your face, and I’m not sure why being a reader should qualify you for that kind of treatment. I’m even less a fan of the urge to write books about characters who are simply awful. Occasionally, very, very occasionally, good art might demand such stories, but it’s a mistake to think that serious art is about terrible ugliness not hard beauty. And when you’re sick, even hard beauty isn’t necessarily the ticket. A comfort book must have characters you want to spend time with and a story that doesn’t deal too harshly with their fate. Nobody wants the hero to die when they aren’t feeling well.

That doesn’t mean a comfort book needs to be all Wind in the Willows sweet. Yes, if I’m really feeling bad, I’ll pull that out or one of my time-worn copies of Pooh, Paddington or Calvin & Hobbes — all of which can still delight. You should never be too old to read a good children’s book with pleasure. Trollope, of course, rewards all this favorites with happy endings, and only Mr. Slope is banished in disgrace. Perhaps Trollope was too fond of Mrs. Proudie to give her any real defeat. Yet The Magicians has death, betrayal and some genuine pain. So does The Hobbit. If you aren’t near tears when Thorin, dying after the great battle, summons Bilbo to his side, you’ve missed, or are missing, something important. In The Maltese Falcon almost everyone but Spade ends up dead or going to jail — though it still has the ending you want. No one wants Spade to play the sap for Brigid. And if he sends the woman he loves up the river…well…she deserves it, and he wouldn’t be Sam Spade if he didn’t.

There’s no one function a book must meet — not even a great book. Like our friends, a book may be there for entertainment, learning, challenge, fun, and, yes, sometimes comfort. I’ve written elsewhere that novels are the art most deeply concerned with transformational choice. No art (and probably no philosophy) is as intellectually important as the novel. My “sick” books may be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious, interesting and even useful. Like friends, we may need books to show us how to live or to change who we are. But sometimes we need them for a warm heart and kindly words.

Are there favorite comfort reads on your bookshelves? Let me know what makes you feel better. It might take me a read or two before they make my sick list, but I hope to never stop adding to my library of old friends.

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