Sunday Salon: Comfort Reading and Its Opposite
I love my comfort books. When I’m in a lonely or sad or vulnerable place, when the world seems overwhelming negative, these books are my saviours. I suspect we all have a few favourites to turn to in times of need. Personally, I’m most likely to reach for a ‘traditional’ mystery (the puzzle kind with a group of suspects, slowly accumulating clues, and lack of gore), a book by a favourite soothing author, a novel with a Gothic flavour, a British Victorian classic, nonfiction about safe topics like how wonderful books are or the fascinating lives of earthworms, or a reread. I have noticed that while my comfort authors are both men and women, they tend to be overwhelmingly British and American. They also tend to be overwhelmingly white. I suspect this is because comfort is in part a measure of familiarity, and having grown up in predominantly white communities in the US & UK, I feel instantly ‘at home’ in that literary environment. I also wonder if it’s because publishers tend to pigeonhole POC and international authors, prioritising books that have more conflict/struggles in them, so that there isn’t as large a volume of easily accessible, cosy POC/international narratives. Or perhaps I just haven’t found them yet; feel free to share suggestions below! But my point is not that this is bad, or even needs changing; I’m perfectly happy with current comfort reads roster (it’s always open to new members, though, so as I already mentioned, do throw peaceful POC/international authors my way).
I’m content with it because I don’t spend the majority of my reading time in my comfort zone; I also relish books that challenge me. I want authors to take me to places I’ve never seen, to suggest alternatives to my most fundamental beliefs, to make me aware of various imbalances in this world and what people are doing to change it. I want books with elaborate prose that makes me savour every word, I want twisty plots that dare me to follow, I want endings that don’t always make sense and leave plenty of space for me to read between the lines. In short, I want books that thrill me, engage me, and make me an active part of my reading experience. These are the opposite of comfort reads, but I’m not sure what to call them. The thesaurus is no help, offering antonyms such as “vex, distress, aggravate, hinder.” I don’t want books that leave me frustrated, just books that require more brain power. Perhaps ‘gadfly books’ should be a new category. I find it harder to list my gadfly books than comfort ones; it’d be easiest to just say everything else! ;) To give it a go, though, I’d say…complicated classics, most of my favourite fiction POC and international authors, the vast majority of my history and social sciences nonfiction, all social justice and environmental science books, and modern ‘literary’ fiction authors.
My ideal reading life is a healthy mix of these two styles. I find if I’ve been leaning too much in one direction or the other, I start craving the opposite. Since I read several books at once, I seem naturally to find an blend for whatever my current mood is. I suppose we all have our golden means; mine is tilted more towards the gadfly side, but comfort books still make a strong showing. I wouldn’t give them up for anything! And I respect both kinds of authors and styles equally.
What about you? Do you reach more for comfort or gadfly books? And how do you define a comfort or gadfly read?
Now for the brief reviews! Originally I was going to devote a post every month just to the books I’m reading for my upcoming Mexico trip. But instead, I’ve decided to just incorporate them into my regular blogging. So today most of my one-sentence descriptions are about the books that didn’t inspire me enough to justify a whole post. I promise there are lots of Mexican authors that I love! ;)
Books I Definitely Liked, Although They Didn’t Blow Me Away or Books that had Great Points Counterbalanced by Not-Great Ones
Read Treasures in Heaven by Kathleen Alcala if…you like historical fiction that has a definitely modern perspective but does an excellent job of bringing a time and place, in this case turn-of-the-century Mexico City, to life and can forgive a perhaps too ‘charmed life’ plot.
Read Tear This Heart Out by Angeles Mastretta if…you enjoy ‘historical biography,’ or novels based on thinly fictionalised real people, and are curious to learn a bit more about the Mexican Revolution or you’re a fan of plotlines about women in powerless situations slowly gaining more control or you just love Mastretta’s other books and are curious about her debut.
Read A New Time for Mexico by Carlos Fuentes if…you love intelligent, cultured essays with a political edge and can ignore a well-off middle-aged man’s perhaps to-be-expected biases or you want to get an informal overview of recent Mexican political history (Alma Guillermoprieto covers much the same ground in a far more extensive manner in Looking For History).
Books That Aren’t For Me but I Could Still See Some Good Points
Read Life and Death in the Templo Mayor by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma if…you already have a strong background in Aztec culture and are looking for a specific analysis of one site (as a newbie, I was completely lost).
Read The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia if…you have a taste of urban fantasy and value interesting ideas and powerful setting enough for them to outweight lackluster writing, unconvincing characters, and an oddly-paced plot.