Tag Archives: comfort books

Books, etc.: Revisiting the Old School

Sarah Seltzer recently wrote on Flavorwire that, as the title of her article says, “We re-read our favorite books as kids and why do we stop as adults?” (http://flavorwire.com/518840/why-do-we-re-read-our-favorite-books-as-kids-and-why-do-we-stop-when-we-get-older)

She says, “[A]ll the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me ‘up on the conversation.’”

My experience has been different.

Reading is never homework for me, and really wasn’t when I was a child either. If a friend has read a book that I haven’t, I simply ask what it’s about and what they thought of it. Voilà – conversation.

I certainly did re-read more as a child than as a grown-up. My mother had to insist that when I went to the library, I take out something new in addition to Green Eggs and Ham.

But I – and many of my adult friends – continue to re-read books. Sometimes it’s books we loved as children, and other times it’s children’s literature we’ve just discovered, and still others it’s books we’ve recently encountered. Without even a book group to keep us up to date, my friends and I pass around recommendations. Right now I’m reading Libriomancer on a friend’s advice. Do I care if it’s less trendy than Grey? I do not. Will it make my re-reading list? I won’t know until I finish it.

A while back, I wrote in this blog about “comfort books” – books we return to again and again, for familiarity, for memories, for new insights, for reminders, for nostalgia, or for just plain fun.

We each have our own list of comfort books. My friend Leslie and I both go back to anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (at least yearly) and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. I go back to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and David Sedaris, and even nonfiction like The Hot Zone and Angela’s Ashes None of these are beloved books from my childhood, but touchstones of my adult life. (Some of them don’t fit the usual definition of “comfort,” but it is, in a way, comforting to me that they retain that spark of awe when revisited.)

When my tastes change (as they have over the years), my re-reading list changes too, though my old favorites remain there for me. Recently I’ve grown tired of the mediocre memoirs and formulaic novels that sell for $1.99 on B&N, and gone looking for books that fill me with wonder when I first read them and are worth a second – or third or fifth – reading. And I’ve found some. Life of Pi (which I just re-read). The Book Thief. Egg and Spoon.

(Do you have any suggestions for books of similar quality? Please, please leave them in the comments section.)

Not that revisiting one’s childhood reading is a bad thing, for as Seltzer notes, there lurk new insights and a mature appreciation of the author’s craft.

Two books from my earlier reading days recently crossed my path again. These are books that endured multiple readings in my teen years – To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase – both tributes to my enduring interest in education (as I would now say) or (at the time) my desire to become a teacher.

Neither book was a waste of time to re-read, and neither, although familiar, spoke to me in the same way it did all those years ago. Re-reading them was both comforting and newly challenging. They stood up to their repeat performances.

Both startled me by their references to high school students as “children.” I suppose to the school system they may be, but I think of many if not most of them as young adults, or at least kids or teens. (I also was taken aback by the word “pupil.” Is that still used in some parts of the country? To me, they are students.)

Some aspects were new to me. As a teen (raised in a lily-white suburb and attending a lily-white school), I noticed but missed the depth of the comments on race in To Sir, With Love. While I understood that Up the Down Staircase highlighted the bureaucracy of the education system in a large city high school, I was clueless about the application of that to all schools, even mine.

“Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight,” Seltzer says. “Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out.”

Now that I can’t argue with.

But I would add that my re-read list keeps growing longer as I grow older. It’s not just childhood favorites that are worth re-reading, but any book that has become beloved to me. And falling in love with a book is definitely not something I’ve left behind. New love can happen at any age.

Now where did I put my copy of Green Eggs and Ham? Ah, there it is – right next to the Lois Bujold.

Books, Etc. – Books as Mashed Potatoes

Books are like mashed potatoes.(1)

Some books are like mashed potatoes.(2)

Mashed potatoes are warm and creamy, oozing with butter or redolent with garlic, or chunky with fiber-filled shreds of skin, if that’s your thing. They’re yummy and atavistic, a taste that tugs at the link between memory and taste and smell and emotions.

For me, a used bookstore taps into the sensory-emotional link – the scent of dust and aged paper, the warmth of an old heater, the motion of a rocking chair, the calming voice of the owner of a store I went to in my childhood and teens.

Books themselves and the act of reading are less sensory and more intellectual. But just as mashed potatoes are comfort food(3), some books are comfort books.

When I’ve been on a serious reading jag(4), engaging with books that leave me pondering or wrung out, or even sobbing(5), when I’ve overdosed on nonfiction that punches me in the gut or heart(6) I need reading material that’s familiar and soul-satisying without being overwhelming.

I need a comfort book.

I’ve had comfort books since I learned to read – books I’ve returned to again and again, that I never feel I’ve had too much of.(7) My first were Dr. Seuss’s immortal Green Eggs and Ham in my childhood and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, in my early teens.

Later, my go-to comfort books were the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – fairly lowbrow adventure/cozy mysteries starring a little old lady working undercover for the CIA. Each book took place in a different country and served up a travelogue more intriguing than the plot and as appealing as the quirky characters and the practicality of the heroine.(8) Also, I know that nothing really bad is going to happen to any of the main characters – none of this “relative dies at the hands of a serial killer” or “best friend is kidnapped and tortured” or “haunting memories of the main character’s dreadful past,” the stuff of much modern crime or spy fiction.

Nowadays my comfort books are largely those by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes intelligent, witty, engrossing science fiction and fantasy novels, the best-known being the Miles Vorkosigan series. The Vorkosigan books take on sf genres including military sf, space opera, interstellar intrigue, and more, all with solid backgrounds in fields as disparate as biology and engineering.(9)

Of Bujold’s fantasy books, I find most comforting the Chalion trilogy (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) or the first of The Sharing Knife series (Beguilement). Falling Free, a mostly stand-alone novel, is also a comfort book, nicely blending the possibilities of technology and humans.

And then there’s Tolkien. Don’t get me started on Tolkien. I’ve read Lord of the Rings dozens of times. My husband, a more visual person than I, has seen the movies dozens of times. As with comfort books, comfort movies no doubt exist. But we won’t get into those. Unless you really, really want to.(10)

Nonfiction comfort books are harder to come by. Familiar but dramatic stories (The Right Stuff), biographies of interesting people (
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie)(11), and accounts or diaries of exploration do it for me. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries are particularly comforting in the summer. The vivid polar prose actually seems to lower my body temperature.

Your comfort books may be entirely different; in fact, they are almost certain to be, given our differing experiences and reading histories. My friend Leslie returns to the Catherynne Valente Fairyland series (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first), an excellent choice, but also joins me in nearly yearly Bujold binges.

The best thing about comfort books is that I can curl up with them in bed, on rainy or snowy days, with a cat, and lose myself. After eating a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

Now, that’s comfort!

(1) No. No, they’re not. Let’s try again.
(2) There. That’s better. Let’s continue until the analogy breaks down.
(3) Mac-n-cheese. Fried rice. Club sandwich. Grilled cheese with tomato soup, the way my mother used to make it.
(4) Trying to remind myself that I was once an English major and an aspiring member of the literati.
(5) Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb were the most recent to make me cry.
(6) Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Faye Greene or And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, for example.
(7) Hence mashed potatoes = comfort.
(8) There are only a few I could probably read now – the first of the series (The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and a couple of ones from the middle of the series that featured characters or settings that appealed to me (Bulgaria and Turkey come to mind).
(9) Of the series, the most comforting is A Civil Campaign, described as A Comedy of Biology and Manners. Memory is the best of the novels, but isn’t always comforting, given my experiences with memories and memory lapses.
(10) Hint, hint.
(11) Avoid Prince Albert, unless you suffer from insomnia. The dullest book ever about the dullest person ever was a biography of Prince Albert. Comfort books are soothing, not boring.

Currently Reading:
Fosse, by Sam Wasson
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold