Do Comfort Reads Need to be Comfortable?

by Taffy Cannon

Most folks have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a “comfort read.”  It’s written matter that you turn to in times of stress, or when you need a break that requires little cogitation, or when you are perfectly happy but flat out not interested in being challenged on any level.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s simple writing.  For some folks, Moby Dick is a comfort read, and plenty of others like to curl up with a cup of tea and Jane Austen.  Engineers go back to Tom Clancy. And there are nearly as many people who fall into the receiving arms of science fiction or fantasy as there are those whose comfort springs straight from romance.

What’s comfortable for you is as individual as your DNA.

But it is comfortable. That’s why you choose it. You’re either already familiar with the book or pretty certain to like it because it’s similar to others you’ve enjoyed. You can slip into it easily and stay absorbed for as long as you want or need to. If you finish it quickly, there’s probably something else a lot like it available to pick up next.

It might even put you to sleep, and there are times when that’s a splendid endorsement, though it would make an awkward blurb: Put me right under. I could not stay awake.

My own comfort reads are almost invariably from the world of crime fiction, which might well seem contradictory to the concept of  comfort.   People die in mysteries. They’re killed in all manner of horrible ways, and very nasty people try to do very nasty things to men, women, children, and animals who often don’t deserve it at all. (The animals never deserve it, of course. Particularly the cats.) Plenty of contemporary mysteries are extraordinarily dark, populated by hideous villains who’ve developed awful new kinds of torture and match wits with tortured detectives battling severe depression.

And yet.

In these books, I know that justice will be served, and I know that because I’ve already been down that book’s path once before.

For a long time, I went back to personal favorites repeatedly.

 I’ve returned to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series more times than I can remember, and know passages from Agatha Christie almost by heart. I’ve actually tried to cook recipes from the world of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Early on I learned the story lines of all of the Sherlock Holmes books, and I still occasionally return to Nancy Drew—the early versions—when I’m really, really sick.  By the time we reach Shadow Ranch, I’m on autopilot while Bess sneaks sweets, George retorts and Nancy kills a rattler or two.

But I noticed something recently.

During a period of prolonged stress, after I’d galloped through a dozen Dick Francis novels, I wanted more.  Richer. Darker. And yet familiar. So I went back to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series from the beginning. And that was so satisfying that I next tried the early Lucas Davenport books by John Sandford, which I hadn’t looked at in the twenty years since they were first published.  I did a kind of audition with Lee Child’s The Killing Floor not long ago, and I’m pretty sure that Jack Reacher’s number will be coming up some time soon.

It’s imprinted in my DNA.

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