One day last week The Guardian ran an article about comfort reading: the literary equivalent of diving for the cake tin at those moments when it seems as if the world is against you and nothing other than sheer indulgence will banish the horrors and restore your sense of equilibrium. I’m sure we all know about both of these phenomena, if for no other reason than that the two very often go hand in hand. What better way to cock a snook at the unfairness of the world than with a good book accompanied by a very large slice of cake? And if it can be accompanied by a welcoming pot of tea all the better.
The comments that the article provoked, each with the writers’ own list of comfort reads, were fascinating, not the least for the number of times that the Harry Potter books appeared. When we are in need of consolation many of us, it seems, go back to our childhood reading, reminders perhaps of that period in our lives when we could retreat from the unjust world without too many repercussions.
One of the items in the list made by a reader with the pseudonym ShutUpBanks, was all of Helene Hanff and this made me realise that I actually have two different sorts of comfort read. When I am not well I automatically reach for 84 Charing Cross Road. In fact, if you ever see me reading Hanff’s first exploration of her love affair with London and it’s secondhand book trade you should probably give me a wide berth because the chances are that I am seriously infectious.
However, when it’s just a ‘the world doesn’t like me and what’s more I’m not particularly fond of it either’ type of comfort I’m looking for then worryingly the first thing I’m going to pick up is a crime novel – hardly likely to make me feel better about society, you would have thought, immersing myself in the worst that it has to throw at me and exposing myself to the sort of unspeakable crimes that you’re likely to find in modern police procedurals. Or, perhaps it is that seeing just how bad other people’s lot can be eventually reconciles me to my own. After all, neither victim nor perpetrator is likely to find themselves treated to a comforting slice of cake and a pot of the best leaf tea going, are they? What do you think?