Comfort Me with Books

If I ever doubted the comfort of the written word, it was indelibly proved to me some ten years ago. My older daughter watched her little sister loaded into an ambulance as police cars and a fire engine stood nearby. I kissed her, said “I’ll be back soon. Granny will look after you,” and five days later we were back, little sister walking unaided into the middle of her older sister’s birthday party. Afterwards, my brand-new five year old said “You didn’t say when you would come back and that made me unhappy—but I know a new poem.” And she recited part of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth. “Auntie Julia taught it to me, and told me when I was sad to think of something beautiful.”

Like many of us, when I am sad and lonely, I turn to a words in the form of a novel for comfort. I am not alone in this. The website Goodreads has a discussion devoted to people’s favorite comfort books.

Sometimes, when I am in a bad mood, I want something new and exciting that will take me far away, engrossing me in an adventure or a cast of characters that sweeps me away from my troubles completely. But more often I turn to an old favorite, to a book that will take me not just into the world of the story, but back to a time when I first read the book when I was happier. As the words of the novel evoke the feelings, both the elevation of my spirits and book itself comfort me.

These are a few I turn to…

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell which I first heard read out loud to me by my granny when I was twelve. We would sit in the orchard of my grandparents’ house in England as we drank endless cups of tea in the long summer evenings. It would still be light at ten o’clock. I would work on some piece of needlework while my granddad sat with his eyes closed. Whenever Gran asked him if he wanted to go to bed, he would reply, “Go on, I’m still listening.” The life of Mary Smith, among the genteel ladies of the small village of Cranford whose quiet ways are disturbed by the arrival of Captain Brown, is itself balm to the wounded spirit.

My mother introduced me to Silas Marner by George Eliot when I was a little older and recovering from pneumonia. Staying home from school all day, not feeling particularly ill but having to stay in bed while I read led me to associate the book with cozy days. I was still living in the house with the fireplace in my bedroom (blog readers may recall the squirrel that fell down the chimney). My mother was in and out of the room, making up the fire, bringing me, yes, more cups of tea, and light meals. We would discuss the story of the weaver, outcast from his religious community and friendless, who rescues and raises a baby girl, and slowly finds a new place in the world.

Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is another favorite. The same grandmother who read Cranford to me gave me a copy when I was a little too young for it. I carried it in my book bag back and forth to school until my wonderful English teacher noticed it, and said she would help me with it. I loved her classes—I can still hear her voice reading poetry to us and explaining difficult concepts in simple, clear terms. I do not know which I enjoyed more: the will-they won’t-they love story of Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy or our talks, which ranged beyond the book to the life of Austin and the social and political history of her times.

After noticing that my comfort books are what you might call classics, I decided to see what other people enjoyed rereading when they felt low. My mother’s choice, War and Peace, surprised me, until she said she first read it in the school holidays while memories of World War II were still fresh. She stayed up all night, finding it a real page turner, reading on and on to learn the fate of the characters she had come to identify with so closely.

A friend told me that when she is feeling down, nothing cheers her as much as listening to Jim Dale reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, or Neil Gaiman reading his own works. And I thought, we mostly think of being read to by our parents (or grandparents) and that alone would evoke a feeling of safety for many. And that is aside from the pleasure of hearing both these talented readers interpret wonderful stories. I also realized that I had listened to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, the tale of a boy called Nobody Owens who lives in a city cemetery protected by the ghosts, four times in the last two years—every time I was going through a rough patch.

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
And I recently found two books on CD that I think will become new go-to books when I need a pick-me-up. One is also written and read by Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book about memory and how it shapes us, told though the eyes of a man who as a small boy had an encounter with the fantastic in the form a magical old farm and the family who lived there and with the evil that seeps into this world. The other is Station Eleven, in which Emily St. John Mandel tells a story that happens to be set after most of the world has died from the Georgia Flu. The connections between a young actress touring with a company some twenty years after the flu and the lives of a cast of characters who flourished before the world changed forever form the body of the story. It is not an apocalypse story, but is about the power of the imagination and the human need for something beyond the merely functional.

What are the books that bring you comfort?

Mary Elizabeth A.


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