I’ve been thinking about comfort books lately.
You know the books that you go back to again and again? The ones that you can get lost in, but that are familiar, where even the smell of the book can bring back memories of happily getting lost in its pages? These stories are like comfort food — the literary equivalent of macaroni and cheese or chicken soup.
Harry Potter is a prime example of a comfort book. (Or comfort series, really.) People seem to return to it again and again, even once they know the stories of Harry’s escapades back to front. I’m one of those people too. I’ve re-read Harry Potter more times than I can remember. I have a theory that we go back to Harry Potter because we remember reading it as children, and having the immersive experience of “visiting” Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, the Weasley’s home, and so on bring back a feeling of familiarity and safety that is deeply tied to our childhood memories.
I have a lot of books like this; books that I read as a child and continue to re-read now because they feel safe and familiar and happy. I read a lot as a child, after all, so there are a lot of books to choose from. Anything written by Tamora Pierce, for instance, the Betsy Tacy books by Maude Hart Lovelace, the Dragonsong series by Anne McCaffrey, and pretty much anything by Louisa May Alcott. I think I love these books and keep returning to them for the same reasons that I return to Harry Potter — because every author worked in a well-developed setting that felt immersive, and I associated the setting and story with being a kid.
But I also have other books I return to over and over that I didn’t discover until later. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, for example, is a book that didn’t come out until I was in high school, but I think I’ve reread it more than any other book I own. It’s so atmospheric, and magical, and it feels like you’re falling right into the circus itself when you’re reading it. If I could live in the Night Circus, I would.
Other books I keep rereading include Howl’s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, and Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, because I love how irreverently and humorously these two authors work within the tropes of fantasy. It’s the kind of writing that I wish there was more of, and it’s similar to what I hope to write someday. Their stories are immersive and interesting, yes, but I didn’t discover them until I was older. So I read these for comfort, but also with an aspirational sense of longing.
Looking at the books that I consider to be my “comfort books” has taught me a lot about my underlying beliefs as a reader and writer. For a book to be great in my mind, a good plot and engaging characters aren’t enough. The story also needs to have a well-developed world that I want to revisit.
And wanting to revisit it is key — I only ever read The Hunger Games once, for instance, because I didn’t want to revisit a world that revolved so much around violence and fear. And while the ending was realistic, I’ve found that I don’t want a realistic ending. I want my books to have unequivocally happy endings. It’s just the kind of person I am. For instance, you’ll notice that none of the books I listed as rereading had dystopian settings. That’s because dystopian worlds aren’t very nice. They aren’t fun to exist in, even if they’re compelling the first time you read them.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve read The Hunger Games, and Divergent, and The Selection, and Matched, and Across the Universe, and a whole bunch of other dystopian YA. (I’ve also read 1984. Don’t worry, I do browse other library sections beyond Young Adult.) And I genuinely enjoy dystopian fiction, even if it’s a rather tired genre at this point. But it’s failing for me, personally, is that I never want to reread it because I don’t want to revisit the worlds that dystopian novels evoke.
For a book to take up residence in the library of my soul, for it to influence the way that I think about books and writing, for it to say something worthwhile about my tastes and personality… I have to read it more than once. (I probably need to read it at least five times, if we’re being honest.) If a book can’t compel me to read it multiple times, then it’s still fun and interesting entertainment. But it’s not meaningful.
Looking at my “comfort books,” it’s easy to make a short list of my favorite things.
The books must be set in a world that feels immersive, and I have to enjoy that world. This is most likely because I deeply enjoy the escapist aspect of reading. While reading can help me to see my own world more clearly, that’s not the reason why I read. I read to escape reality. I always have, and if I’m being honest with myself, I probably always will.
The books must have likable main characters. Even better if I see aspects of myself in them, or wish I was like them. But it’s not going to work if I don’t enjoy the main character.
The plot must be engaging — they can be fighting dragons or deciding what to wear to the school dance, but the author needs to make me care. I have to be invested.
They must be fantasy or historical, or preferably both. While science fiction, contemporary fiction, and even nonfiction are lovely, they have no place among my comfort books. While I can’t describe this one (it would be like describing why I like the color blue or the taste of chocolate), it’s good to know which genres I’m naturally pulled towards.
Of course, these are only my preferences. While they’re useful for me to know, they aren’t the be-all and end-all rules for what makes a great book. Everyone has their own tastes, and a book that I love and reread again and again may not be someone else’s cup of tea. But I think the books that we love say something meaningful about us as people…
What do you think? Do you have comfort books? Or just books that you really love? Or do you dislike rereading books altogether? (I have some friends like that; don’t worry, I won’t judge you.) Let me know in the comments!