Comfort reading

People speak of “comfort food.” Not being all that much into food myself, that’s not what I turn to to settle me when I need settling. In times of stress, I tend to turn to certain books that are familiar and comforting to read.

Not because of…



Not because of … the subject matter, necessarily, but because it is familiar. Sometimes “comfort books” for me are ones I enjoyed from the very first read — such as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, which I’ve got to get somebody other than Mike Fitts (who turned me onto them, several years back) to read, so we can exchange esoteric references, because it’s fun. Other times it’s books I didn’t even like the first time I read them, but got hooked on subsequently.

The Aubrey-Maturin books (which you may associate with the film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which is based upon them, but which is an inadequate summation) are so engaging because they so completely put you in another world. But it’s not a fantasy universe like in Tolkien, but a magnificently detailed recreation of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Jack Aubrey, one of the two main characters (the other is his particular friend Stephen Maturin), is based loosely upon Lord Cochrane, and most of the naval engagements described come straight from contemporary logs and gazette accounts.

The detail, from speech patterns (both formal and casual) to politics to popular culture to social arrangements to politics to the complexities of sailing a square-rigged vessel in all conditions all around the world. is so engagingly rendered that it removes you from whatever is going on in your dull contemporary existence. And when you’ve been away from these books, you’re as anxious to get back to them as Jack is always anxious to get back to sea after another of his disastrous (and often comically so) spells on dry land.

There are 20 books in the series, which are wonderful read individually or as one long, magnificent work. Or at least, that’s true through the 16th book, which is as far as I’ve read because I dread getting to the end of them and having no more new ones to read. Having finished the 16th a few weeks ago, I’ve started reading the previous books for the fourth time, and they are as fresh as ever. They are just so rich that there’s always something new. But the remembered, familiar passages are so enjoyable that you’re glad you remembered them, and happy to be experiencing them again.

And, did I mention, comforting?

Some other comfort books, that I’ve read to tatters:

  • Stranger in a Strange Land — This is the one I was thinking of when I said a comfort book doesn’t HAVE to be something I enjoyed the first time. I wrote a rather savage essay about this one in high school, despising it at the start. But it really grew on me, and I’ve worn out a couple of copies. (Why, oh why has this never been made into a movie? I’ll write the screenplay if no one else will…)
  • Dune — ONLY the first book. I hated the sequels. I’m on my second copy. Yes, the book that inspired the worst big-budget movie ever made
  • Battle Cry — Here’s a weird personal fact about Leon Uris’ opus about the Marines in WWII: I first read it at the same time I bought “Abbey Road,” in October 1969, and to this day listening to the album (especially the second side) reminds me of the novel, and vice versa. I told you it was weird.
  • The Dirty Dozen — You probably didn’t even know there WAS a novel. Well, there was, and it was way better than the movie (as close to a violation of the Guy Code as it may be to say that). I read it when I was 14, and it was the first “adult” novel I remember reading. Long and involved, I practically memorized it. For years, I could remember the names of every one of the dozen cons without looking at the book, and probably still could, if you gave me a few minutes. Talk about your useless information.
  • The Once and Future King — I’m really into Arthurian legend (hey, kids, guess why the Harry Potter story is so appealing! It only rips off the best legends of the English-speaking peoples!), and this is the best version I’ve run across. Although I also have read and reread and enjoyed an obscure attempt to place Arthur in a realistic 6th-century setting, The Pendragon.
  • High Fidelity — Again, a good movie, but a WAY better book. Nick Hornby is great. Probably the best-ever evocation of the differences between the way male and female minds work. We don’t come out looking too good, guys, but it’s a fun read, anyway. One great passage: The protagonist’s girlfriend is explaining that he’s just too miserable to be around, and that if he isn’t happy he should Get Happy, and she stops him before he interrupts and says, Yes, I know that’s the name of an Elvis Costello album; that’s why I said it — to get your attention… Boy, did that feel familiar.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the idea…

18 thoughts on “Comfort reading

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I did like High Fidelity and other Nick Hornby stuff, but I’m neither a guy-book fan, nor a re-reader (there are sooooo many new books I want to read). You are so like my brother, a fellow ink-fingers–he re-read the same book all year when he was growing up–Call of the Wild one year, Rascal another, The Boys of Summer (he may be stuck on that one)….

  2. Brad Warthen

    Guy books? Hey, I know several women who have read and enjoyed The Once And Future King. Not to mention Hornby.

    Hornby gives guys something to (guiltily) identify with, and women a focus for their scorn. Which I guess means he’s slightly more enjoyable for guys, except for women who particularly enjoy being scornful…

  3. Brad Warthen

    Actually, the thing that caused me to pst this unfinished initially was a very Hornbyesque situation.

    My wife called me downstairs to get me focused on the documents she had assembled in trying to decide whether we should try to refinance our house. She wanted me to be involved in the decision, and considered it to be more important than my fooling around with my blog. Of course, I let on to agree with her…

  4. Greg Flowers

    To Kill a Mockingbird and All the Kings Men are worth reading and rereading. For the mystery fan (as I am) the four novels by Sarah Cudwell are nonpareil.

  5. jfx

    Would you mind elaborating on why only the first Dune book? I haven’t read any of them, but some people say you have to read the first THREE to “get it”. What goes sour for you after book 1?

  6. Brad Warthen

    You lose trust in the characters. Herbert gets carried away with his “feint within a feint” notion of duplicity — no one acts in a fully aboveboard and trustworthy manner — to the point that I just couldn’t possibly care about the characters any more. Plot twists, particularly in the form of palace intrigue, became more important than character.

    This was a theme in the first book — various characters being led, via disinformation to believe that the Lady Jessica had betrayed House Atreides, when she was the last person in the world to do so — and acting on that misperception (or, as in the case of Gurney Halleck, ALMOST acting upon it, until they were made to see reason at the last second). And, being the Kwizatz Haderach and all, there are various ways in which Paul exhibits coldness to the people he should care about, etc.

    But in the second book and thereafter, the palace intrigues, the betrayals from least expected quarters, etc., just got tiresome. Near as I can recall, anyway. I only read them once, and did a pretty good job of forgetting them.

    I have the same objection to “24.” Yes, humans are complex and often unpredictable. But at some point, character matters. Relationships matter. Your best buddy might let you down, but at some point there’s something decent and noble in the relationship, or why the hell am I listening to this story? I’m deeply conservative that way, I guess.

    A good writer, a well-crafted story, can deal with human unpredictability and the ways people let other people down in ways that are credible and believable. O’Brian does that. Take, for example (and if he’s still reading this, Burl will know what I mean), the chaotic relationship between Stephen Maturin and Diana Villiers. Or Stephen and Jack Aubrey, for that matter. But those conflicts are realistic and believeable.

    On “24,” it will be essential in one episode that character A is someone you can stake your life on. You might or might not like him, but you can count on him in a pinch. Next episode, for the convenience of lazy writers who need another cliffhanger, Character A is found to have been working for the bad guys all along. I watch a few episodes of “24,” and I feel jerked around. And not jerked around very artfully, either.

    Anyway, the subsequent Dune books made me feel the same way.

    The first Dune book was complete and satisfying. Things come full circle in it, and after that, I just felt like the author was reaching.

  7. Tim

    My official comfort book would have to be “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Anything by James Patterson is also comfortable, because they’re entertaining without being taxing.

  8. jfx

    Ah, I see. So after book 1, it becomes sort of a self-parody. Like Godfather Part III (the movie), or Chicago album #472.

  9. Norm Ivey

    I agree with you about The Once and Future King. I’ve come back to it several times, sometimes just reading sections of it. I have re-read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy a few times. I’m fascinated by the possibility of predicting human behavior mathematically (although it doesn’t seem to help in my fantasy sports leagues).

    As a former Language Arts teacher (now I teach science), I always enjoyed reading The Pigman by Paul Zindel with my classes. John and Lorraine are like old friends. The Giver by Lois Lowry is a young adult novel that all adults should read. Not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.

    The one book that brings me real comfort is the Holy Bible, however.

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