Reading Rituals: Comfort Books

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." But books help make it more bearable.

“Parting,” wrote the Bard, “is such sweet sorrow.” Count on books to make it more bearable.

My friends are moving away. This isn’t accompanied by the bleak, devastating sadness I felt the first time they left. (Yes, they’ve already moved from Boston to the West Coast once, then returned, and are now en route to the West Coast once again.) We’ve seen that our friendship endures, in spite of location. And the proliferation of Skype and FaceTime has made keeping in touch, even seeing each other, possible in a way that helps to ease the ache–at least a little.

Still, after we hugged goodbye last night, I came home knowing that I needed something. I needed a good book–a comfort book.

Books have comforted me throughout much of my life. When I was fourteen, and indentured (er, I mean, when I’d hired myself out) to a new mother for several weeks, I sought refuge in Nancy Drew Double Mysteries when Mommy Dearest turned into a raging crazy lady. During my afternoons off, I would use a carefully-designated 1/3 of my week’s earnings to purchase as many Double Mysteries as I could afford. Back at the asylum, I would count the hours until my blessed release from childcare duties (and outbursts from Mommy), when I could lock myself in my room and be whisked off to the land of immortal teenage sleuths and their harrowing exploits. During that brief interlude with Nancy each night, Mommy was out of the picture; I was comforted.

This isn’t to say that I still go running to Nancy when the going gets tough. My comfort books have changed over time. Also: Comfort books do not necessarily = my favorite books ever. My need for a read that soothes the soul doesn’t usually send me reaching for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. A Wrinkle in Time isn’t usually high on the list, either. Comfort books, it seems, are a breed of their own. And so, too, are the reading rituals that accompany them.

Reading Rituals, Part 3: Comfort Books

Ritual #1: Select the book. There is an art to this process that begins with gauging my mood. Do I want to lift my spirits, or revel in a purgative cry? Am I looking to escape through a portal to another world, or steep myself in the warm bubble bath of a good, old-fashioned story? If I want to be entertained, I generally go for a Roald Dahl classic, or something by Astrid Lindgren. Catharsis sends me toward books by Cynthia Voigt or anything by Lois Lenski. Portal to another world? Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, or, here’s an exception to the favorite books rule, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. As for a good, old-fashioned tale, there’s nothing like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy to soothe a troubled heart.

Ritual #2: Read it all the way through. I mean in one sitting. Comfort books are not meant to be eaten daintily, like some kind of finger sandwich at high tea. Comfort books are meant to be gorged upon. Comfort books are meant to be devoured in one delicious marathon.

Ritual #3: Revel. I can’t explain why my comfort books are my comfort books, or why any given book may end up comforting me at any given time. I can’t recommend comfort books to other people; they’re distinctly personal, and unique to time and place. But I know I’ve found a good one when, after I finish the last page, I can revel in the warmth the story has left behind. When I can feel, for one brief moment, like a child again–the child who first read and loved that book.

Of course, I’ll still miss my friends. But at least I have books to comfort me in their absence.

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