Sunday, 14 October 2012

The joy of reading comfort books

In my earlier post on Agatha Christie for Friday's Forgotten Books, Mystica and Yvette commented that Christie's mysteries and the classics, like those by Jane Austen, were “comfort reads,” books they went back to again and again because they genuinely love those books and also in times of hardship.

In stressful situations, people tend to read books that help them relax and take their mind off their immediate problems. It may act as a temporary balm but you look forward to those moments with certain books you enjoy reading more than others; solace reading as you might call it.

I’m not talking about self-help, spiritual, and motivational books. They’re usually the first choice of the undiscerning reader.

How many times have I put down a novel because it was too “heavy” and I was too “stressed” at the time to read even a few pages from it? Good number of times.

I don’t find all the classics relaxing, or comfort reads, at least not the ones I have read or I’m reading currently. A few days ago, I put away Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe because I just couldn’t focus on the narrative that spoke of a courageous woman determined to put her impoverished life behind her. Yet, some years ago, I couldn’t put down Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe whose humdrum existence on a desolate island did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm to finish the book. I loved Crusoe’s spirit of adventure, guided as he was by his faith in the Creator and the companionship of a dog, fowls, birds, sheep, and goats until Friday came along.

Instead, I picked up the long overdue Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and read the sixth of the series in four days. I enjoyed the book in spite of the many loopholes in it. Among other things Albus Dumbledore’s exit was unconvincing.

I’m tempted to reach out for Deathly Hallows but that’ll happen only if I tire of reading the psychological thriller The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty or the India-centric A Son of the Circus by John Irving. I should finish Blatty’s short fiction, about a bunch of crazy war vets interned by the Pentagon, in the next couple of days though Irving’s 678-page tale of an Indian who is not an Indian but keeps coming back to India might take much longer. Irving’s characters, places and settings are often predictable, but he is one of the finest writers I have read over the past two decades. Hopefully, next up is A Prayer for Owen Meany which, I am assured, is a most absorbing story. 

It’s probably a male thing but men usually veer towards more serious genres, such as thriller, horror, sf, fantasy or western, as a form of relaxation. I remember, sometime last year, I put away Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy because I was suddenly too tired to read it and picked up At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs and went underground with Tarzan, into a Jurassic kind of world that was an amazing experience. I eventually finished reading Hardy’s intense tale of the self-sacrificing Jude but found ERB’s fantasy novel unputdownable. A pulp for a classic! Why not? A pulp is a classic for a lot of people.

My reading habits swing like the pendulum, usually before bedtime when I’m most likely to switch over to books that are less taxing on a tired brain. For such an eventuality, I have books and comics that I can read at a moment’s notice. 

The pile of some read-mostly unread cross-section of books would include those by Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Brian Garfield and John D. MacDonald (crime and suspense), P.G. Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe (humour), Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Don Pendleton (Mack Bolan), Thomas Craig and John le Carré (espionage), Oliver Strange and Louis L'amour (westerns), Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury (sf and fantasy), Hardy Boys, , Richmal Crompton and Roald Dahl (YA), and occasionally, the classics.

On the other hand, I have read most of the comic-books in my collection but there are a few that I go back to again and again, like Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Bahadur (the Indian vigilante), Rip Kirby, Tarzan and Korak, Conan the Barbarian, and Calvin and Hobbes. I also enjoy re-reading comics under various popular labels such as Marvel and DC, Classics Illustrated, Dell and Gold Key, Harvey Comics, Commando and Western, and India’s Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories).

If these don’t work then I turn to self-help, spiritual, and motivational books! They never fail to lift my flagging spirit.

14 comments:

  1. A very nice post, Prashant! I get exactly what you mean by "comfort reading" - in fact, probably way too much of my reading falls into this category. For me, some of my go-to comfort reading authors would include Christie, Sayers and Allingham, as well as the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Walter R. Brooks' Freddy the Pig series, various Doc Savage novels, Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, the supernatural fantasies of Manly Wade Wellman, misc. reference books on classic film and TV, my (mostly complete) collection of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazines, plus all manner of adventure, mystery and fantastic fiction.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking essay!

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    1. Thank you, Jeff! "Comfort reading" almost always works for me as I'm consciously putting away a book I'm not too eager to read at that point and picking up one that I know will put me at ease. Apart from, say, a Christie or a Burroughs, I'm instantly comfortable with fast-paced action novels, especially those related to espionage and the Cold War. I'm not familiar with FREDDY THE PIG series by Walter R. Brooks and will have to look it up — it sounds interesting. I once attempted to read the first of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and gave up after a couple of pages; maybe, after retirement. There was a time when I used to read more magazines than books, a waste of time as it were. Now I read only books, and magazines online.

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  2. I am not sure who I would go to for definite comfort reading. You never know what the plot will bring, how hard it will be to sustain interest, how much work it will take. I can think of no sure fire author sadly. At one time it was Anne Tyler but no longer.

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    1. Patti, you have a point about comfort reading not living up to one's expectations. For me, though, "comfort books" are those books by authors I'm most familiar with even though I might not have read all their works. I know exactly what to expect from them. For instance, I delight in reading the historical novels of Frank G. Slaughter and lose myself in his prose. Lloyd C. Douglas and A.J. Cronin are two more authors on my comfort reading list. I'd read them blindly.

      The only book by Anne Tyler I read was DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT and I felt for Ezra Tull when his brother, Cody, snatches away his girlfriend, or something like that.

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  3. Interesting piece. I've found that I turn more to so-called comfort reading as I've got older. In my youth, I often read books that I thought I should, books that everyone seemed to have heard of etc. It was only later that I realized I wasn't always getting much out of them, that the reading was becoming more a chore than a pleasure. And so I decided that I would concentrate on the material that had an enthusiasm for, and I'm afraid a lot of that falls into the pulp category.

    It's strange that you mentioned Thomas Hardyand the difficulty of getting through his stuff. I remember back at school when The Woodlanders was a set book for English one year. Man, did I ever loathe that book! It seemed interminable and, worst of all, unengaging. It left me with such a bad attitude towards Hardy that even now, close to thirty years later, I'm unable to look at a copy of one of Hardy's works without a tinge of resentment.

    It's hard to say what my ultimate comfort reading is. I guess if I'm feeling a bit low then I do often turn to the likes of Louis L'Amour or maybe Elmore Leonard's western stories. Of course it's hard to beat Rex Stout - there's something about that perfect little world of Wolfe's idiosyncrasies and Archie's slickness that hits the spot almost every time.

    Colin

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    1. Hi Colin, thanks for the appreciation. You have touched upon another aspect of comfort reading. My reading habits haven't changed much since I began reading fiction in high school. The only difference now is that I have a wider choice of authors than I knew existed back then. Besides, I'm also more into non-fiction than at any time in the past.

      I read a lot of pulp fiction and I'm absolutely comfortable with the genre, mainly because I like the stories, the characters, and the brisk pace.

      The one Thomas Hardy book I read in less than a week was THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE. It was definitely one of the easier Hardy books to read and besides I was very curious to know what happened to Michael Henchard after he sold his wife and daughter in a drunken stupor. I have a few more Hardys lined up at home including THE WOODLANDERS and I'll have to see if I quite agree with your assessment of this book.

      I'm with you on Louis L'Amour though I haven't read too many Elmore Leonard's westerns, and not a single Rex Stout yet. Comfort reading or not, the list of books to read keeps getting longer by the page.

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    2. Good luck with The Woodlanders - I reckon you'll need it!

      Man, you have to give Stout a try. Both his novellas and his full length novels are pure class, not so much for the plotting, which is ok but nothing more really, as the character interaction. It's just wonderful.

      I don't know what you've read of Leonard's western output, but I heartily recommend Valdez is Coming.

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    3. Colin, I'll probably need it when I do decide to read THE WOODLANDERS though I'd more or less made up my mind to pick up THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE first which, I believe, is an equally difficult read. At least, it'll help me get into rhythm for some of his other classics.

      Rex Stout has been on my reading plate ever since my friends from the blog world have been shouting about his books from the rooftops. I don't have any of his paperbacks and the only ebooks I have are UNDER THE ANDES and two short stoires, NINE SHORT STORIES and ROSE ORCHID, which ought to be sufficient to acquaint myself with Stout and his creation Nero Wolfe. Thanks for the push.

      Colin, actually I've read just one Elmore Leonard western, THE BOUNTY HUNTERS, and a non-western PAGAN BABIES which I liked not so much for its plot as for its conversational style. Leonard is big on dialogues. I have another couple of his novels including UNKNOWN MAN NO.89. I like the sound of VALDEZ IS COMING and will keep an eye out for it.

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  4. Burroughs and L'Amour are certainly comfort reading for me.

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    1. Charles, I'm glad we're one on Burroughs and L'Amour. I like Burroughs' narrative and find his stories engrossing. A lot of L'Amour fans rate HONDO and TO TAME A LAND higher than most of his other novels. My personal favourite has always been FLINT and it's one of very few westerns I've read more than once.

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  5. I'm a big comfort reader, particularly after a busy time, or when I go on vacation. Michael Connolly, Stephen King--pretty predictable blockbuster stuff.

    I read all the Agatha Christies when I was in my teens. Might be good to revisit those...

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    1. F.T. Bradley, I haven't given either Connelly or King the attention they deserve though I'm pretty high on blockbusters myself, especially Tom Clancy and other espionage writers, in particular Thomas Craig whose conservative style takes nothing away from the suspense in his stories about the cold war. I'm currently (re)reading Agatha Christie in order of publication though I've read several of her mysteries in the past, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS being the first book of hers that I read.

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  6. Completely agree about the concept of comfort reads Prashant and also with the comment that these grow as you get older. My authors would include: Agatha Christie, John Le Carre (The Little Drummer Girl gets read during times of stress), PD James and to a lesser extent Ruth Rendell.

    When I have a cold I usually watch the TV adaptation of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' although I could probably repeat some of that dialogue in my sleep now.

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    1. Sarah, my comfort reading has spiralled in the past few years, perhaps owing to the exigencies of urban stress, at least in my part of the world. You named some of my favourite authors. While Christie is a constant, I read le Carré as often as I can. I liked THE CONSTANT GARDENER and THE TAILOR OF PANAMA both of which were far better than their movie adaptations. Geoffrey Rush's character in the second novel is way better than its portrayal in the film. I have THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL but haven't come round to reading it. I don't remember the last time I read a P.D. James and I don't think I have read anything by Ruth Rendell.

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