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?

Image of The Comfort of Things
Author: Daniel Miller
Price: $17.19
Publisher: Polity (2009)
Binding: Paperback, 300 pages
Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a bibliophile and bookseller from the frigid North Shore of Massachusetts. A graduate of the journalism program at UMass Amherst, she spends her spare time blogging about books (of course), history, politics, and events in the Boston area. Occasionally, she spits out something resembling fiction, and has previously served as a contributor to Steampunk Magazine. She collects typewriters and old novels and laments the fact that her personal library has outgrown her apartment.

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Comments

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago November 17, 2014 - 8:41am

My all time comfort books are anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Flannery O'Connor.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck November 17, 2014 - 9:31am

High Fidelity is my go-to.  I read it once every couple of years starting when I was 14 or 15, so probably 5 or 6 times total.  It's quick-witted and funny and sad, and Hornby is the master of first-person-present-tense.  My favorite authors are the ones who can engage you, not always so much by plot, but with having a character just talk to you (even if he's totally unlikable).  It's almost like someone else is in the room and telling you a story that you can start and stop at will. There's a sense of camraderie, but because it's a book, also control, which is perfect for me.  How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper was the same way for me (although I've only read it once and really need to find my copy).