Right Book, Right Moment

Luckily there is no need for me to ever align all my thoughts on books, literature in general, or children's books, because my thoughts all contradict one another. I think that kids should be allowed to read whatever they want, but I am also tremendously leery of allowing my kids to read books that I consider downright bad. I think of reading as an intensely private and self-directed joy, something that should be unalloyed with any hint of medicine to it—and yet I use books as medicine all the time.

Case in point: right now. There's been some bad news coming down the pike here, and one cannot help but be aware of exactly what one is reading during difficult times. At the beginning of the bad news it was American Gods, then it segued into The Truth About Drug Companies (don't ask and no, it's not comforting) before finally settling in the heart of the bad news with 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Fear not: it's a novel.

None of these were chosen for comfort; they were what I happened to have on hand and I made do. The last one, especially, was blissfully distracting, but when I was afforded greater choice, I had the strangest experience of watching myself make a selection, as though I was outside of it. I need peace, I need comfort, I told myself. What did I go for? This.


This probably tells you more about me and my ridiculous sentimentality than anything else ever could. Good old, sloggy old Dickens. What is it that I find so moving about him and his brutally tear-jerking ways? I can't say. All I can do is be so grateful that he is there to tell me a story. A story makes all the difference in the world.

My children have found their medicinal choices too, even if they don't quite know it yet. In times of trouble, Chestnut heads back to the Prairie and Laura Ingalls, and you can almost see the stress leave her body, strewn across the bed in the air conditioned room, mentally traveling somewhere she is able to make sense of. Diana finds her peace with The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

And that's not to say that these are the same ones every time. For fever, I prescribe something much lighter, perhaps a Robert B. Parker or Rex Stout, or maybe Rich Men, Single Women (if that's your style). And for deep sorrow, there's nothing better (as I've said often enough before) than Patrick O'Brian.

But things will be better now, and I still get to follow Little Nell and the Old Man to the end of their journey.

So here's the question, readers of all: what comforts you? What comforts your children? I say we come up with a pharmacopoeia and spread it around.

14 thoughts on “Right Book, Right Moment

  1. Very sorry to hear of bad news. Here’s hoping they soon and rapidly improve.
    My go-to books for bad times have to be my old children’s books — Moomintrolls, Winnie the Pooh, The Thirteen Clocks. Perhaps it’s in a vain hope that immersing myself in books that I first read when my biggest worry was if my Thermos would leak will make the present worries just as manageable.
    Good thoughts to you.


  2. I hope everything gets better for you rapidly. O’Brian is a new passion for me but my husband and I are tearing through the series– I’m on 20 right now, feeling the tell-tale compression of the volumes and not happy about it. I can see that these will be revisited often. My go-tos now are Wodehouse for light trouble, Lucky Jim for irritation, and Norman Rush’s “Mating” for serious issues, weirdly enough.


  3. Sorry to hear about your rough week of bad news. When I’m facing bad news, I retreat to long standing favorites like John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.


  4. Jane Austen. For the good and the bad times. Always Jane Austen. Also, Bill Bryson (anything), Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore.
    For the almost-4 when he is sad or sleepy: My Mother Is Mine, I’ll See You in the Morning, and good old Goodnight Moon.


  5. I’m so sorry to hear about your bad news. I hope things are better soon.
    I feel like half my reading is comfort reading. What can I say–I’m very delicate. I also like Terry Pratchett; the Harry Potter series (around the first half, anyway), and Anglophile literature, especially mysteries: Agatha Christie, the Father Cadfael series, etc. Recently (no bad news but I’m just so worn out all the time) I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Sarah Caudwell’s work again–what a pity she died so young and left us with only four books. Oh, and the Eyre Affair series, YA stuff like Dealing with Dragons, etc.
    I’ll have to check out Curiosity Shop! I do like what I’ve read of Dickens (not much). After starting it over and over again, I finally finished Bleak House a year or so ago, and that was very rewarding and really a page-turner at the end.


  6. I’m sorry to hear of your long week — when I’m feeling low I think about re-reading something long and tedious like Trollope. Somehow, even the remembering of reading it helps me. I adore “Middlemarch,” too — anything from the nineteenth century, actually. But the ultimate comfort is to grab a book of poetry — preferably Yeats or Williams or Dickinson — and run for the hills.


  7. When things are rough I like to read books that pull me in, but don’t require a lot of effort on the reader’s part. So nonfiction, memoir-ish books work for me. A couple I really like are Man Bites Log and The Geography of Bliss.
    Thanks for the post, I’d never thought about this before.


  8. So sorry to hear about your difficulties…
    My own comforts are Laurie Colwin (especially “Happy All the Time”), Dorothy Sayers, and Georgette Heyer.
    My daughter always goes back to Mrs. PiggleWiggle in times of stress. I think it is the pleasure of a truly ordered universe.
    For my son it is either Terry Pratchett or Harry Potter.


  9. Wow didn’t even realized I’d done this after a truly awful week* until I read your post. I ended up reading: Gone Away Lake and Return to Gone Away Lake (Enright). Next on the list are Trixie Belden and then Gaudy Night and some of the sweetly sentimental adult novels by Elizabeth Goudge. What’s funny is that with the exception of the Enright books, I had not thought of these as comfort books but they surely are for me.
    * My beloved dog died, there were layoff notices at work, and I had to offices at work- within 3 days.


  10. I’m with you and the others on Dickens, Wodehouse and Austen, as well as children’s books, for comfort when things are rough. And right now we really need comfort here in Norway. I’m sorry for your bad news.


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