In another thread, the question came up “what is ‘comfort reading’?” It didn’t occur to me that the idea might not be universal, that some reading is done purely for the pleasure and affirmation of a pleasant visit.
I recently finished Margaret Maron’s new novel, The Buzzard Table, which is the 18th entry in her Deborah Knott series of mysteries. For those unfamiliar with Maron’s work, she writes a solid murder mystery, in the vein commonly referred to as “Cozies.” Which, I suppose, differentiates them from the harder edged thriller idiom employed by writers like Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen, in which plenty of the details and arcana of death and mayhem are on display along with a much darker examination of the sociopathic or psychopathic criminal mind.
Not that the murders in Maron’s work are less gruesome, just that much of the gore is left off-stage or examined with a lighter touch.
I scratch my head sometimes at the fact that I’ve now read 18 of these, from the first (Bootlegger’s Daughter) to the new one, in order. There are a couple other series I’ve been making my way through this way. I’ve kept current with Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell series, which chronicles the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his wife, the eponymous Ms. Russell. (I’ve also read all of Ms. King’s other series, the Kate Martinelli novels, the last one of which cleverly dovetailed with Mary Russell.)
I find myself reading these in between books that seem to demand more from me. I hasten to add that when I began them I did not find them less demanding than, say, the latest Michael Connelly or Laura Lippman, but as one volume followed the next, I found myself able to slip into these worlds more easily, as if coming back to a favored vacation spot. I was, in a word, comfortable.
This is not the same as easy. Maron’s character development over the course of 18 novels has been consistent, charming, and engaging. These people live and breathe on the page and I go along with them as much for who they are as for the adventures in which they are caught. Also, her exploration of place is a layered experience, book upon book. The community is alive, the landscape familiar now and yet surprising in its variation.
I’m tempted to call this “snack” reading, but that might suggest an insubstantiality that I do not intend. Each book shows me something new. But I don’t live with these characters the way I might with those I might find in a William Gibson novel (and I certainly don’t have to work to navigate the fictive ideascape as I would in a Gibson).
Some comfort reading—it is not all the same, nor does it offer the same comforts—is more like ritual than exploration. I’m thinking of certain fantasy series that have gone on inordinately long. I suspect some read these less for the new they might find than for the utterly familiar, and doing so—especially repeated readings—eventually becomes a matter of revisitation as to a shrine. (I won’t name them, but I imagine people might know of which I speak.) The value of ritual is unique to each of us, so I intend no derogation here. But it’s different.
I think most of us who read as a substantial aspect of our lives have certain books which are simply there for the familiarity and comfort they offer. Fresh ginger between heavier courses.
When I pick one of these up I know I’m going to be refreshed, relaxed, and ready for something else at the end. It’s reading, so it does all the important things I think reading does for the brain and the mind. Just about anything, I suppose, can be considered comfort reading, though I have a hard time imagining James Joyce or Proust falling into such a category. I’ve read most of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels but because each is so different, even while sharing a background milieu, I don’t consider them “comfort reading” even though I am by now fairly comfortable within their conceits.
Interestingly, there seems to be nothing in science fiction I consider comfort reading. So far, such books have all been mysteries. Long ago I lost interest in ongoing series in SF and Fantasy, but in the last few years I’ve discovered a taste for them in mystery. I may examine this at some point, I find it curious, but for now I’m enjoying myself too much to question it.
Right now I’m reading China Miéville’s Kraken. Not comfort reading.