What’s your comfort reading go-to?
What do you read when you feel down?
What do you read when you feel lonely?
What do you read when it’s cold out and you need to feel warm?
Do you have favourites you turn to?
I’ve heard that there’s such a thing as bibliotherapy these days. As I’ve only read about two articles on it I don’t feel very well qualified to make a judgement on a) if it’s an actual thing, or just one of those odd trends that float around; and b) if it’s something you go to a librarian or a therapist for.
However, I am quite sure that us readers work our own form of bibliotherapy an awful lot of the time, without any sort of training whatsoever. Because it seems to me that we crave the books we need, the same way we crave certain foods. Just as we know that shepherd’s pie (veggie, obviously, with cheddar cheese on top and tomato sauce on the side and a large helping of peas) will go a long way to making us feel better after a bad day, so too we know what books will help us heal, if we’re only willing to listen.
I’m not necessarily talking about making great breakthroughs in self-awareness here, or healing past traumas. But I am talking about those small, everyday, and desperately important acts of self-care that we too often neglect or leave behind. Giving ourselves a little distance from our stresses and struggles, a little time to recover ourselves. A little escape. And, beyond that, a way of arming ourselves against the world. A way to make ourselves stronger, to broaden our thinking and our skills and ourselves against what we need to survive every day, be that work or home or life.
There’s a fabulous Neil Gaiman quote regarding escapism, in which he points out that not only is it ridiculous to denigrate reading as a form of escape, because escape is sometimes desperately necessary, but also that fiction can arm us with the tools we need to improve – or to even physically escape – our situation in the world outside our books. That’s important. It matters. Reading matters. It’s not just the growth of empathy and understanding of others that it promotes, it’s the understanding of self.
And to me, part of that understanding is knowing what we need when.
I don’t read the same books when I’m happy as when I’m down, just as I don’t eat shepherd’s pie on a bright summer’s day. I don’t read the same books when I’m stressed as when I’m relaxed. And I’m not saying this method is foolproof, or that it heals me deeply, but by listening to what I’m craving – by putting down the books that aren’t helping me at that point and picking up another – sometimes I can feed that part of me that’s hungry. And very often, whether I intend to or not, I learn.
If my head’s full and I’m stressed, I often reach for Janet Evanovich. I know the characters. I know that Stephanie Plum’s car will get destroyed at some point and that her grandmother will go to the funeral home as a social outing. I know Lula will ride along on a pick-up, and that it won’t go smoothly. I know that there will be dithering between Ranger and Joe Morelli. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. I can hang up my brain and go with it.
If I’m unsettled, or need to feel secure and reassured, the way pulling on your favourite old jumper and sinking into the sofa with a cup of tea and a plate of cookies feels, I go for Stephen King. I know that might not sound like comfort reading, but I’ve been a Constant Reader since I was 12 or 13. Those stories were my escape then, and they’re the same now. I know I can lose myself in them, and rely on them. They work.
If I’m feeling a bit down and unfocused, if I’m sick of the news and the hurt and the sadness in the world, I go for middle grade books. Percy Jackson, the Graveyard Book, Samuel Johnson, the How to Train Your Dragon series – anything like that. They not only make me laugh, they remind me that there is still friendship and loyalty and magic and goodness in the world. Plus there’s always so much going on in them that I can’t help but stay focused. I can’t help but make my escape. And do it smiling.
And everything else comes and goes in waves. Sometimes I need a book I can get my teeth into, something that makes me think and feel and step out of what feels comfortable. Sometimes I just want to not think about this world at all. Sometimes I want Carl Sagan, sometimes I want Terry Pratchett. Sometimes I want The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, sometimes I want Trainspotting. But one thing I have learnt is that I’m better going with the book that’s speaking to me than the book I think I should read. Because whether it’s literature that’s intended to teach me, or self-help books intended to grow me, the odds are that if I’m forcing myself to read it, I’m not only not getting any enjoyment from it, I’m not getting anything else from it either.
And, after all, we’re not in school anymore. We’re grown-ups (in theory). We can read what we want.
What books do you go for when you need some comfort reading? Does what you read change depending on your mood? Let me know below!