The treasure of comfort reads

Topics books | BOOK REVIEW

It is now three months since the national lockdown was first announced, and those of us who have been responsibly social distancing and working from home probably need a spot of consolation in our lives. Thrown on our own resources in a most unexpected way, by now a lot of us might be returning to, say, comfort food. Adventurousness and exploration  — learning how to bake, picking up a new language, and finishing that classic novel you always intended to get back to  — is all very well. But at times like this you need something familiar. 

Some people, when they need comfort-reading, return to the books that they used to read as children. One can see the advantages. The act of reading can sometimes marvellously transport you not just to the world which you are reading about, but also to the moment when you first discovered it, even if it was decades earlier. Like a particular scent or taste, it can burn open pathways in the brain that were laid down and then half-forgotten. There is only one problem with this plan though: Typically, what you read as a child was a kids’ book. And those are, on every other level, pretty unsatisfying. Have you tried paging through, say, an Enid Blyton recently? Don’t do it. It is a rare children’s book indeed  that you can simultaneously read for pleasure, for nostalgia, and for comfort. 

Of course, not all the things one read as a child were children’s books. For years growing up, at Christmas time, I would re-read Charles Dickens’ Business Standard, December 21, 2017). But that is, quite obviously, a seasonal treat. To take the comfort-food analogy a little further, it would be like having kaju barfi in high summer, in order to try and recapture the happy sugar high that eating six packets of it gives you after Diwali. 

But, broadly, that is close to what you want: A book that, whenever it is re-read, transports you to moments of calm in your own life. Almost a ritual, in fact. 

There are a couple of common features, I have realised, that such a book should have. First, it should start well. You usually turn to it as a last resort, when you’re already feeling a bit agitated. Nothing else you are reading has held your attention, been escapist enough or insightful enough or enjoyable enough. The experience has already rendered you irritable, and reading has become an effort. A book that starts slowly will not address this immediate difficulty. Within a few minutes, the first couple of pages, you should be reminded in spite of yourself of why reading is enjoyable. 

Second, it should not be overwritten. Comfort food is simple. Or, at least, it feels simple. Perhaps the intricacies of its preparation have been carefully hidden in the final presentation. Or perhaps its very familiarity means that its complexities have been rendered undemanding to you over time. And so it should be with a comfort book. The ideal re-reading ritual should be of a book just smart enough to not irritate you, just deep enough to keep you engaged, just simple enough to not require you to pause so often for thought that the spell breaks.  And third, it should have variety. For a large number of people around the world, their comfort reading is The Lord of the Rings — which begins with a charming bucolic naivete and then expands its canvas. This is what you want from a comfort read: It should start calming and comprehensible, and slowly prepare you to meet the world as it actually is.  

I guard my comfort reads like a fixed deposit, and indulge in them like they are hot chocolate fudge sundaes. In other words, I dip into them only when absolutely necessary. In my head I carry a sort of calendar: I know, for example, that it has been seven or eight years since I last cracked open Bill Bryson’s  A Walk in the Woods. In a couple of years, my memory of it will have decayed just enough to be, in a strange and miraculous paradox, fresher. You have to be careful about running down your treasure of such books; they cannot be replaced easily. They are created not just because they themselves are of a particular quality, but because when you read them first you were in the sort of mental space that you want to recapture, and can be recaptured. Use them sparingly. Still, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone is dipping into their savings.

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