A fellow book club member recently came up with a list of her top 10 comfort reads and I have shamelessly stolen the idea. I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind all day. I suppose that everyone will have a different definition for such a list, but I will give you my preliminary attempt:
A “comfort read” is a novel that sticks with you in one way or another. It’s a novel that you’ve learned something from or felt strongly about (emotionally or philosophically). It’s a novel that epitomizes a time in your life or a feeling in your life that you remember vividly – likely a transition point. To me, after the structure and story of the work leaves my mind the emotional impression is still there. It’s a novel that while you are reading another work, you wish you were reading the comfort read again. The experience of reading the work has a history with you in some way, has stirred you to a point that you cannot forget.
I could only come up with a top six off the top of my head, so I will have to give it some more thought to get it to 10 (if 10 exist).
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
I remember in elementary school, taking out our textbook and reading selected excerpts from popular works. Other than “Jabberwocky”, the ones that stick out in my head were Homer’s “Odyssey” (which I have yet to read) and “Riddles in the Dark”, the popular chapter where Bilbo wins the Ring in a battle of wits with Gollum. I loved the excerpt so much that I made my father buy me the novel along with most of the Lord of the Rings books that the store had (they were missing the Fellowship of the Ring, so I ended up getting a different edition – this perturbed me for years afterwards). Anyway, I remember being shocked that my father would actually buy these for me. I can’t remember him ever having bought me anything, and he has never been a fan of literature (he only reads John Grisham novels), so I must have made some sort of impression on him.
I loved “The Hobbit” the most of the Tolkien books. I have read it twice and I still have many fond memories that will never be affected by the movies. I long to attend the table of Beorn and watch him shapeshift. I would like to whistle with Tom Bombadill, roving through tall grasses and sitting by willow trees. I long to sit by the fire and eat sweetcakes with Bifor, Bofur and Bombur... and all the other dwarves. When in a rut, I’d love to go adventuring on the downs (despite the danger) and see what prizes can be found there. In short, the world Tolkien created fascinated me and appealed to me on a level that I never knew existed. It took me to places I had never been before and I continually want to grab the book from my shelves and dive back into it.
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (1974)
This young adult novel was probably one of the first I had ever read. It ended up winning the Newberry Award, and I believe it was recommended to me... or we read a snippet of it in elementary school. I don’t know if any of you remember when Scholastic used to come to the school and your parents would give you money to order select books of your choosing. I ended up buying the whole series, and they still sit on my bookshelf.
I remember feeling the fear of Will Stanton in his fight with the Dark. I remember signs (representing the elements and represented physically by a circle with an X through them) and the feeling that when Stanton found one, he would be protected from evil. The plot completely escapes me, but the impression left was a deep one. It makes me sad as an adult to think that many kids in today’s society don’t experience this pleasure and sense of adventure.
“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.”
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow (1959)
I originally read this novel because my favourite band in 1993, The Counting Crows, wrote a song about it entitled “The Rain King.” Since I felt so connected with the band (their lyrics, emotional style, etc), I figured I would give the novel a shot. I remember feeling more moved by this novel than I had been in virtually all other novels (save for a famous work to be discussed later by Salinger). That said, I completely forgot the plot and the only thing that remained was my identification with the main character, Henderson. Here’s a good synopsis from Wikipedia if you want to check it out:
“Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa.
Upon reaching Africa, Henderson splits with his original group and hires a native guide, Romilayu. Romilayu leads Henderson to the village of the Arnewi, where Henderson befriends the leaders of the village. He learns that the cistern from which the Arnewi get their drinking water is plagued by frogs, thus rendering the water "unclean" according to local taboos. Henderson attempts to save the Arnewi by ridding them of the frogs, but his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster.
Henderson and Romilayu travel on to the village of the Wariri. Here, Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength by moving the giant stone statue of the goddess Mummah and unwittingly becomes Wariri Rain King. He quickly develops a friendship with the native-born but western-educated Chief, King Dahfu, with whom he engages in a series of far-reaching philosophical discussions.
The elders send Dahfu to find a lion, which is supposedly the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu's father. The lion hunt fails and the lion mortally wounds the king. Henderson learns shortly before Dahfu's death that the Rain King is the next person in the line of succession for the throne. Fearing the elders would rather see him dead than lead the Wariri, Henderson flees the Wariri village.
Although it is unclear whether Henderson has truly found spiritual contentment, the novel ends on an optimistic and uplifting note.”
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1993)
The subtitle of this work was “A Fable about Following Your Dreams,” which is telling. The novel is written with a simplistic plot and a simplistic language, and I often recommend it to people who don’t usually read a lot. I really enjoyed the story, and enjoyed reading about the author, Paulo Coelho... a man whose parents wanted him to become a doctor and when he refused and stated he wanted to be a writer... sent him for electroshock therapy. This happened a few times, and ultimately, he became a writer and sold millions of copies in more languages than I could list. The thing about this novel, is that the ideas stuck with me for quite some time afterwards. The story was a good one, but the concepts were really important in my life at the time. I read this in university, a time when I was really trying to find who I was and this novel gave me a bunch of good pointers.
It was famous by the time I read it, but it hadn’t quite made its rounds to the people who are liable to read books like “The Secret”. Had it already made it to this audience, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957)
I read this book probably about five years ago, and when I look back at my comment on why it was one of my all-time favourites, I came across this quote: “I believe Zhivago's search for self, purpose and a harmony with nature resounds in my soul.” This sums it up rather nicely, I think. I remember thinking very strongly that Pasternak was a man that I would really have loved to have met. He was obviously an enlightened being, but it went much further than that. He had a compassion for people, a desire to aid them and a strong love of nature. Zhivago himself was figuring all this out in his life, and you could feel the progression. I used to think that my girlfriend brought out my latent inner hippy-self, but I distinctly remember the strong feeling of it in this book. Think of it as Huckleberry Finn for adults. Forget the theme of adventure and concentrate the love for the outdoors, and then focus on that feeling with an adult mindset on individual things that speak to you.... like the fragrance of cherry blossoms. This is what I remember about Doctor Zhivago. Despite all the sh*t that was going on in Russia, he still appreciated the smaller things. He had passion like a child, but the appreciation was that of an adult learning about himself and the world. This really resonated with me.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest books of all-time, this book was either perfection for readers or trash. I know several people who just don’t get this book, and I can’t figure out why. So far I have not been able to segregate the people who feel resonation with this book and those that don’t. I had thought that it had something to do with education, but perhaps it’s just based on whether you feel misunderstood or not. Perhaps it has something to do with a person’s tendency to feel emotion by everyday things and events.
I have read this book three times, which is the most I have ever read a book. Each time I get something new out of it and it makes me want to become a writer. I am Holden Caulfield; I feel that somehow. I get his emotional ups and downs, his perceptive nature and his anger at himself and others. It makes so much sense to me that after I finish reading the novel, I feel like I can write another Holden story that comes from his mind.
This book stirs me to an emotional level that no book has ever done. As a consequence, I feel for Salinger and was grateful that he found a place of near seclusion from the world... save for his family (he had a horrible relationship with his daughter, but I think was close with at least one son). I have a biography that is supposed to be pretty crappy, but I may read it at one point anyway because I’m so curious (the only reason why I haven’t so far is because I consider invading any Salinger privacy as blasphemous). And I’m a little leery of reading anyone talk about Salinger’s life, including pundits and some relatives (especially his estranged daughter).
When I look at this list, what strikes me the most are the omissions. How did Hemingway not make this list? (Parenthetically, there are a few short stories that would apply) Where is John Steinbeck? While novels by these authors resonate with me strongly, I don’t seem to label them as comfort reads. Reflecting on the list shows me that some come from childhood, but most represent characters that I felt very strongly about because their ways of thinking resonated with me at the time and still do. While I go about this world constantly changing, these books mentioned are a part of me.
The definition of “comfort” books evolved as I wrote about my memories of these books. These are books I would bring with me if I was left alone on a deserted island, books I would want to read again before I quitted the earth. Re-reading them is a re-discovery of myself, and books that allow me that indulgence are priceless to me.
Thank you to Shannon for this idea – I enjoyed writing this post because I was able to experience all these great books and emotions all over again.