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Sunday Salon: Comfort Reading and Its Opposite

March 11, 2012

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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.

The Sunday

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 8:59 am

    Interesting to read your description of your comfort reading, which lines up with my own in many ways. I’ve found that lately I dive for the mysteries and for books that I read in high school or that remind me of when I was around 16 – so lots of Sue Grafton mysteries, a Lord of the Rings reread, and reading Tamora Pierce’s newest book. I’ve noticed that, like you, I tend to go for white authors who are American – not so many Brits in there. But I also tend to reach for women when I’m looking for comfort reading. It’s a topic I’d love to explore more, because my more “serious” reading tends to be heavy on the male authors. What does it say that I seek out comforting, by-the-numbers books that are written, overwhelmingly, by women, but that my reading as a whole is a bit weighted towards the men?

    Loved reading your post, and thinking about this a bit in terms of my own reading. It’s something I’d love to write on my own blog, if I could think of a way to flesh it out more.

  2. March 11, 2012 9:30 am

    I have a tendency to switch between both types of books as well. When life is crazy I have a tendency to read more of my comfort books and just immerse myself in the worlds that the authors have created. I love a good mystery as well :) Hope you have a great week Eva!

  3. March 11, 2012 11:21 am

    I think when I was younger, I read more books that were in my comfort zones (fantasy and historical fiction). As I’ve gotten older and talked with so many diverse people about books, I have gotten out of that zone and become more exploratory in my reading. Which I love- I am so glad I was introduced to graphic novels and to women’s history through blogging. But I still go back to fantasy or histfict as my comfort reads, if I feel restless or unsure of what I want to read.

  4. March 11, 2012 12:09 pm

    My comfort reading is anything by one of the “Golden Age” British crime writers (Christie, Allingham, Heyer, Sayers). No gore, clues to follow and everything always turns out right in the end. Perfect!

  5. March 11, 2012 2:19 pm

    I think I lean more towards comfort reading than the other, and most of it’s by female British authors from the 19th and early 20th century (Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Persephone Books), although recently I’ve also started reading more kids books and absolutely adore those too. There’s old-fashioned children’s literature (L.M. Montgomery is an old favourite) and then newer stuff too, like The Penderwicks, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Diana Wynne Jones… all good.

    Although lately, after looking at the Orange Prize long list and reading your blog again, I’m also considering reading more international contemporary writers, especially women. So that’s exciting. :)

  6. March 11, 2012 3:06 pm

    oh I don’t often comnfort read but when I do it be waugh or wodehouse ,all the best stu

  7. March 11, 2012 4:07 pm

    I reach for the comfort books when I’m very overwhelmed or stressed, but I read much more from the other side. My comfort books are mainly Diana Wynne Jones (or certain other fantasy writers), Patricia Wentworth or other cozy golden-age mysteries, and Eleanor Farjeon. I also have favorite non-fiction cozy reads. The authors are almost uniformly British women–I am much more comfortable in the world of British literature than in American! Even though I’ve been to the UK exactly once, for 10 days, my literary mental landscape is very much based there.

  8. March 11, 2012 6:55 pm

    It’s interesting and surprising, this idea about gadfly books, because I feel like any time I read a book, I have a small but definite hope that it will become — not a comfort book, necessarily, but a book that I’ll return to over and over again. I want to read books outside my comfort zone because I’m hoping they’ll come closer to being IN my comfort zone.

  9. March 11, 2012 9:04 pm

    What a great discussion today, loved reading your thoughts. I think my reading is similar. I love the label of gadfly books too! I definitely love books that challenge me most, I think, though I do certainly need comfort reads in between. For me the challenging me is bringing me to new places I’ve not explored, or learning more about the world and how I interact with it (i.e. books about racism, classism, the justice system, etc).

  10. March 12, 2012 9:50 am

    I absolutely need both comfort books and non-comfort books, both of which you describe so well, Eva. I typically am read one of each similtaneously to keep my balance and fit my daily energy flucuations. Most of my comfort books are by women, by not always US or UK. I’d include Lisa See (China) and Nalo Hokinson (Caribbean), for example. I like fantasy and the kind of mystery that Eva described. Most of my non-comfort reading is by women, too, and even more of it is from outside my own culture zone.

    As to names, comfort is perfect, of course, and I’d almost say the others are my discomfort ones. They are the ones that require deeper attention. Acamdemic, theoritical, analytical, or non-traditional or conflict-filled or simply deeply moving fiction. Maybe EXPLORATORY would be a good name for the geographical, intellectual, imaginative, and emtional exploring they bring. They ask more of me, but give more in return.

    Maybe I will try labeling the books I read as comfort and exploratory.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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