Columns > Published on November 17th, 2014

Read and Repeat: Finding the Perfect Comfort Book

Grab the hot chocolate and a fleece blanket. November is an ideal month for curling up inside with a book, but most people don't lunge for the Chicago Manual of Style when they've had a long day. Comfort is often defined as a sense of being at ease, or the opposite of stress. Daniel Miller describes the sensation in The Comfort of Things as being attained through the presence of familiar objects. With that in mind, what is the process that attracts us to certain books when seeking relaxation, while others seem like a chore? Is it the smell of worn pages, or are glossy preferred? And is there complete variation from person to person, or is there a kind of "comfort average?"
Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas have a greater chance of transporting a stressed individual from the present than a "fluffier" title that one might find in the bestseller section.

Complex Is Good

Security, reward, and social stimulation: these are a few of the ingredients most often cited as part of the perfect soothing broth. Many people turn to their favorite comfort media after a bad day. Negative feedback from an employer? Messy breakup? That's when it's time to crack open an old friend and curl up on the softest chair available. Books in particular make a better emotional crutch than a gallon of ice cream. It may be the more complete escapism they offer that makes them a faster route to relaxation than listening to music or going for a walk.

The greatest novels engage all of the senses to such a degree that a reader feels like he or she is literally falling into the fictional world. Bearing that in mind, Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas have a greater chance of transporting a stressed individual from the present than a "fluffier" title that one might find in the bestseller section. The key to the ideal escape appears to be in finding a world and characters complex enough to inhabit, something that the Jane Austen fandom is very aware of. Her stories, although penned in the early 19th century, still strike an emotional chord with readers across the globe and are regularly listed as the kind of books that many advocates turn to again and again.  

Books Develop Social Skills So You Don't Have To 

Repeat readings or viewings of media add to an increased feeling of safety, since you already know the ending before turning to the first page. Revisiting a world or characters on a regular basis also allows for a kind of fictional bond to develop on the part of the audience, which could be part of why "binge-watching" has become so popular. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken told The Daily Beast that while conducting a study on what drove viewers to binge-watch, he found that people don't seek out intelligent serialized content as a way of eliminating outside noise. McCracken notes that he "was illuminated to hear people say, 'Look, it's precisely because there's so much distraction that this is a special pleasure."

The development of these fictional relationships is important to achieving a sense of ease because, although imaginary, they can help inform real life decisions. Reading increases empathy, and in that way alone it can improve future social interactions through an ability to accurately judge the state of mind of others. Remember that awkward conversation that drove you to seek out a comfort book in the first place? Several chapters in, you're better equipped to deal with the situation based what you've observed the characters struggle through.

Smells Like Vanilla

Lastly, association is another major factor in finding the ideal comfort book. Novels can invoke strong feelings of nostalgia for childhood or another pleasant time in life. One comfort books list on GoodReads includes numerous classic books for children and adolescents like Anne of Green Gables, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Even the smell of books, which many readers describe as pleasant, might derive from associations with other scents, particularly vanilla. According to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, "lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent."

Personally, a hand-me-down copy of Fellowship of the Rings is my holy grail of comfort books. Do you have a favorite comfort book, and if so, what's so calming about it?

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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