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What Does it Mean to Read for Comfort?

After my post on the HEA and HFN, I got to thinking about “comfort reading.” We talk a lot about comfort reading in Romance, even though I suspect we don’t share a universal definition for the term. For example, a recent blog post by Alison Flood in The Guardian, suggested that comfort reading is “easy and already familiar,” largely comprised of “rereading” and is therefore unchallenging to the intellect. Flood pointed to a report on children’s reading that indicated a “marked downturn in difficulty of books at secondary transfer,” which others have suggested may be due to a turn to earlier-read books as a way of coping with the transition to a much larger and more difficult school environment.

For children, of course, there’s not a lot to return to, in terms of reading levels, but as adults, we re-read for myriad reasons, as a recent BBC article noted:

Scientists have weighed in, too, citing the mental health benefits of re-reading. Research conducted with readers in the US and New Zealand found that on our first reading, we are preoccupied by the ‘what?’ and the ‘why?’. Second time round, we’re able to better savour the emotions that the plot continues to ignite. As researcher Cristel Russell of the American University explained of re-readers in an article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, returning to a book “brings new or renewed appreciation of both the object of consumption and their self.”

Comfort reading can, of course, relate to familiarity and the safety of knowing what’s going to happen. In Romance, this safety and familiarity can be multiplied by the promise of a happy ending. The formulaic nature of genre fiction (and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but in terms of its relied upon core formal elements) often means that we can experience a new book as “comfort reading,” because the reader can reasonably count on certain tropes, devices, storylines, character types, and emotional conflicts.

However, comfort reading doest have to be about the easy. A story with which a reader has formed a strong emotional, intellectual and/or psychological bond can allow for different experiences, and a deepening of experience, upon multiple rereads. Further, as the reader changes, so may her experience of and with the same text. Even if the desire in rereading is to return to something (a “simpler time,” a familiar feeling, a previous moment), that does not mean that the experience of rereading is not progressively enriching in other ways.

Moreover, not all comfort reading is the literary equivalent of hot cocoa, fluffy bunnies, and content sighs. As author Kameron Hurley explains in “Tragedy as Comfort Fiction: On Death, Drama, Disaster & Saving the World,” that in the face of a life-threatening illness, dark books were her comfort reads:

Reading tragedies, I realized, connecting with characters who persevered in the face of grim odds, and certain ends – were actually comfort reading for me. They put me into high-stress situations with no personal stakes, so I could actually feel the fear and discomfort and rage and horror without having any skin in the game.

Dark fiction didn’t depress me – it invigorated me. So when folks talked to me about my work, or the books I read, and said they were downers, there was always a big disconnect. I understood why they would like upbeat endings, all neat and tidy, because real life wasn’t like that, and they wanted something more hopeful.

But I felt plenty of hope all the time. It was the hope that kept me going.

I read because I needed to feel the other things without losing my shit and giving up.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it comports with Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, which is connected to “purification,” or the sense of being rid of certain negative emotions through the vicarious experience of a tragic journey.  Catharsis is not the same thing as happiness, but it can leave the reader/audience with a sense of an emotional clean slate, a base for emotional renewal and regeneration, as well as a hope that emerges from the purging of – in Aristotle’s version, at least – fear and pity.

Although I do not share Hurley’s personal near-death experience, or her particular health challenges, I immediately recognized in her essay an emotional kinship on the value of dark stories as comforting. In the months since my mom died, for example, I have been turning to Romances that are both familiar and that push a lot of my own buttons. These are books that were challenging to me the first time around, and have not gotten less so upon rereading. And as for the new books I’ve been undertaking, I’ve wanted to be similarly challenged and pushed to extremes and even triggered, in a way. Whether in Romance or in other genres, I’ve found the most comfort as a reader in stories that are not necessarily comfortable. This has been true throughout my life, in fact, especially when I am facing a more extreme challenge in life.

Not that I don’t also want the hot cocoa and the fluffy bunnies and the content sighs; I just don’t associate those exclusively with comfort reading. Sometimes it’s more comforting for me to be put through the emotional ringer — to cry and rage and feel terrified and pushed by a book – and to know that I can come out the other side fine. Sometimes I need to purge an excess of worry, anxiety, anger, or fear, and at the same time, I need the kind of emotional reassurance that only Romance delivers. And during those times I may want a book that doesn’t make it easy, either on me or the characters.

Although I already knew this about myself, I never really understood it clearly until I read Hurley’s essay. In fact, her essay made me think about all the definitions that are probably floating around out there for “comfort reading” amongst the huge diversity of readers, including Romance readers.

So tell me, what do you look for in a “comfort read”? Do you agree with the blog post in The Guardian that characterizes comfort reading as regressive, or are you more in Hurley’s camp? And does a comfort read have to be a familiar experience, even a reread book, or can it be something entirely new, as long as it connects on certain emotional, intellectual, or psychological registers?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

27 Comments

  1. Ainslie Paton (@AinsliePaton)
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 04:14:19

    For me it’s the act of reading fiction that’s the comfort. I seldom ever re-read. If I know what’s going to happen I’m done, and there is so much out there to absorb and take shelter, adventure, escape, hope, laughter or delight from.

  2. Cora @ Tea Party Princess
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 04:53:19

    Although there are a few books I re-read, I’d say that only two of them are comfort reads. And one of them only counts because it makes me cry (full on, sobbing my heart out, bleary eyes) and I feel better after I stop crying.

  3. Emma
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 06:05:21

    One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading a James Herriot story to me, a very sad one in which a poor man’s dog had to be put down; all he could pay Herriot with was an ancient cigar. I remember my mom and I were crying and then I asked, “Can you read it again?” I’ve been hooked on re-reading ever since.

    I read quickly so I’ve never felt as if I sacrifice new experiences with books in order to re-read. (Though at some level, that’s not true.) I have re-reads I associate with certain times of year–I always read Pride and Prejudice at Christmas, a tradition that started during college when I wanted something different from my coursework; I read A Room with a View and Northanger Abbey in the spring when I want something hopeful; etc. But I do re-read books that are both emotionally wrenching and artistically difficult.

    Re-reading feels like a way to mark my progress. I’ll remember my previous reaction to a passage and compare it to my new one. The text on a re-read is myself. But there are also times when a new book simply isn’t going to satisfy me, when I need to know what I’m going to get. Sometimes I won’t even re-read the entire book. I’ll just read the key scenes in the emotional arc so I can finish the book in a night.

    I do think narrative is, or can be, a psychological balm. The emotional experience of re-reading is predictable but not route because we are different. Each time we pick up the book, while it is the same, we have changed. We re-read to remind us of both.

  4. Steph from fangswandsandfairydust.com
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 06:13:57

    O! To Have the luxury of rereading, One thing about being a one-woman-blog is that rereading has become a thing of the past.

    Great article, I think kids don’t have a lot to choose from but the comfort of rereading the same book may be partly from the comfort and pleasure of getting one’s parent’s undivided attention absent the stress of the day time. I remember reading “The Happy Family’s Vacation” about a family of four who drove cross country to visit relatives. Over and over and getting it renewed from the library.

  5. SAO
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 07:41:20

    For me, comfort reading is undemanding and has an emotionally rewarding ending. I remember driving straight from very difficult grad school final exams straight to my local bookstore to find the latest Harlequin. That was when I really got over my previous shame at reading “trash” and started getting annoyed at the stereotype that Romance is for the dimwitted.

  6. Shannon Stacey
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 07:46:27

    I rarely re-read, but I guess I have a comfort author. In 2008, my husband suffered a TIA, which led to them discovering a severe carotid artery blockage on a Friday. They scheduled the surgery for Monday and said he could come home with us if he really wanted, but he probably wouldn’t make it until Monday. So, after we signed a lot of papers covering risks and DNR situations, we left him at the hospital to be pumped full of blood thinners and I came home without him. I cuddled with my two boys and we tried to watch fluffy movies, but nothing would quiet my brain.

    I picked up the Nora Roberts book at the top of the pile. It was Blue Dahlia, the first in the In the Garden trilogy. If you’ve read it, you know it opens with the heroine having to tell her two boys their father was dead. So THAT was rough, but I kept reading because I trust Nora Roberts with my emotions. I could lose myself in the story and everything would be okay and there would be a happily ever after, no matter how rough it got through the middle. I read the entire trilogy through that ordeal because reading was the only way I could quiet my thoughts enough to keep a complete emotional breakdown at bay and, in my fragile state, Nora Roberts was the author whose stories I wanted.

    So I guess she’s my comfort read.

  7. library addict
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 07:50:50

    I think my fave authors can be comfort reads for new books. but when I think comfort read I usually associate it with books I have read before. I consider the In Death series a comfort read even though the books can be very dark. As many times as I have reread it I can still find new things to enjoy about the relationships. Many Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle books are comfort reads because her books are fun. I am currently rereading Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series and very much enjoying it. I read the entire series for the first time last year and though I remember the main plot points I had forgotten some of the subtleties.

    For me the joy of rereading does come from getting to savor the characters’ emotional journey the second (or more) time around. And in the case of long running series see the foreshadowing.

  8. library addict
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 08:05:03

    Oops, hit send too soon on my tablet. I reread based on my mood. It’s a way to get a guaranteed reading fix without having to gamble on a new-to-you book. I know if I reread one of Shannon Stacey’s Kowalski stories I will have some laughs, some family bonding of doom, and a satisfying romance. If I am in the mood for adventure, my go-to book may be my favorite GhostWalkers by Christine Feehan. I also have my favorite Nora Roberts, Merline Lovelace, Meg Benjamin, etc (I am sure I am leaving out many).

    Basically while my autobuy authors are ones I autobuy for a reason, a true comfort read is a book I have read before and am rereading to either (a) satisfy a particular mood and nothing in my TBR is appealing at that moment or (b) I am on a reading slump and rereading is a way to still read and not fight expectations for new books which just aren’t working for me at the moment.

  9. Laura Jardine
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 08:25:09

    I’m not much of a re-reader anymore, though I used to re-read all the time as a child, and found that comforting. Now, I consider romance in general to be comfort reading, especially when I’m reading books by familiar authors. I did not start reading romance until three years ago, after my mother’s unexpected death. I needed the promise of that HEA, the promise that everything would work out okay, unlike in real life.

  10. Isobel Carr
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 09:23:32

    To me, “comfort read” = rereading. I have many books (ye olde keeper shelf) that I may reread in their entirety, or I may just pick up and read a favorite scene, or I may *intend* to only reread a favorite scene, and this discover that hours have passed and I’m nearly done with the book again, LOL! One of the things I love about my Kindle is having most of my keeper shelf with me everywhere I go. No more being trapped on a plane with a book that’s just not doing it for me!

  11. Amanda
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 10:07:23

    I think the familiarity is a definite part of the comfort read. There is something nice in knowing what will happen, especially when life is an epic ball of suck or nothing else you read is working for you. But I also find that I do discover new things when I reread.

  12. Lisa J
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 10:32:07

    Count me in as a rereading = comfort read. I love it when a book I read sends me back to reread an old friend. What I reread is often driven from something in a book I’m currently reading or if I’m in a slump.

  13. leftcoaster
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 11:43:40

    I think I could say that I very frequently re-read, and while not all of my re-reading is comfort reading, all of my comfort reading is re-reading, if that makes sense. I have a really hard time slowing down to savor a book (mostly due to control issues I am guessing) because I really want to find out the what and why. So a good book I almost always re-read at a slower pace so I can enjoy it more once I know what will happen by the end.

    I wasn’t huge on comfort reads as a category for me (my reads are all over the place) until we did a bunch of medical stuff with our young son. I knew I’d be out from work for nearly a month, and loaded my kindle in anticipation. I found I was completely unable to focus on anything new, and could only retreat from my life by re-reading something that was engaging enough to keep me interested but didn’t require a lot of concentration. It was a little disconcerting, but I rolled with it.

  14. Marianne McA
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 12:00:54

    Comfort reading is rereading for me too.

    The first book I connected with after my dad died I picked up because it had his name in the title, and unbeknownst to me was about a boy who was growing up in about the time and place he grew up, so in a lot of ways it was a healing book to read.

    It was a gentle meandering book, and emotional and even cathartic to read, but none of that made it a comfort read to me, though it was a very comforting read.

    But a comfort read is the literary equivalent of an old trainer that has shaped to your foot perfectly, or a worn teddy bear that you’ve slept with forever – familiarity is part of the essence of a comfort read.

    Equally, familiarity by itself doesn’t make a comfort read.

  15. Mia West
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 12:57:03

    For me, comfort reading isn’t rereading a particular book so much as putting myself in the hands of an author whose work I already trust to make me feel good — happy, inspired, surprised, turned on, even terrified, when it’s a thrill I need. In that way, a new release from a favorite author is as much a comfort read as one of his or her older works.

  16. Nessa
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 14:26:19

    Add me to the comfort read = rereading list. When I’m angry or upset or nothing seems to be working correctly in my life, I go back to books I’ve read and enjoyed before and it pulls me out. I usually turn to the Harry Potter series, a couple of the In Death books, or the Gamanche series by Louise Penny.

    For me, it’s a comfort only because I know these characters, I know how they’ll react – often to difficult circumstances – and I know they get out safe and happy in the end. It’s like meeting old friends again after a break, it’s predictable and almost lulling. So, yes, an HEA is essential, but I don’t really turn to romance necessarily for relief.

  17. txvoodoo
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 15:42:30

    I re-read all the time, and have for 40+ years. Some for comfort, I guess? Sometimes it’s to take a vacation in a familiar world that pleases me.

    Sometimes it’s going back through big epic series, where I learn something new on each re-read, or see something in a different light, based on my own experiences since the last time. I’m not the same reader at 51 that I was at 41, or 21. That can mean that re-reads are less than satisfying, or more!

    For non re-read comfort, when I’m stressed, or sick, I got to cozies, or gentle fantasies — non-challenging reads.

  18. hapax
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 16:00:06

    I’m still stumped by the notion that “re-reading the familiar” is somehow “regressive” and “unchallenging to the intellect.”

    I suppose those who hold to that theory also feel that going home to the same old spouse everyday, doing the hard slog of making a marriage work, putting up with the dull parts and the repeated irritations in order to have the unmatched joy of getting to know a person better in breadth, in depth, in different situations, facing different challenges, and constantly being surprised …. isn’t as “progressive” and “challenging to the emotions” as having an affair with a new hot thing every day?

    After all, for thousands of years in all of the world’s major faith traditions, the most impressive intellectual work was done by men and women who would start every day re-engaging with a relatively small set of texts. Many would testify to the “comfort” they found in so doing; it’s amazing how all those monks and nuns and rabbis and imams and priests and gurus somehow managed not to have their minds stunted in the process.

    /Whoops! Looks like someone just had one of her hot buttons pushed!/

  19. cayenne
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 16:43:30

    Considering the figurative height of my digital TBR, I don’t re-read a lot anymore since it would cut into my new-read time, but even with the backlog to clear, every so often while terribly stressed, I will re-glom Guy Gavriel Kay’s works. From the perspective of familiarity=comfort, they qualify, since I’ve been reading his books since “The Summer Tree” came out; however, they are in no way safe or easy reads since they’re intricate and can be emotionally wrenching.

    But from a standpoint of catharsis, I would say that they do work: their intricacy demands that I pay attention as I read and jettison outside stress in order to appreciate them, and since I get so involved and invested in the worlds and characters, I become emotional over them to the point that they act as a proxy focus for venting real-life anxiety. To dissociate myself from external stress enough to appreciate any book is enough of a challenge at a crappy point in life, so while the complexity of GGK’s books helps me to deal with whatever problems I might have, it’s not something that works across all types of book (I guarantee that the detail in the old political philosophy texts or less-liked classics still cluttering my shelves would not be as effective at evoking that catharsis). It’s the remembered warm or positive memories associated with an earlier reading of the book that counteracts whatever is negative at the moment I begin re-reading.

  20. Jamie Beck
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 19:07:31

    I’ve only re-read a handful of books, and when I did, it wasn’t because I consciously sought “comfort” of any type. I would agree, however, that I was able to pick up on different elements and emotions of the story the second time around.

    A comfort read, for me, is any book that utterly sweeps me up and carries me away for a few hours. The kind you stay up until two a.m. to read because you just can’t stop. I don’t need to identify with a particular character or emotion as long as I’m “in” the story. Yes, I’m just that easy!

    There are a few authors whose voice I particularly like, and whose storytelling is more consistently able to deliver me to that place, but I love being surprised by a new author or book that not everyone is talking about/pushing, too.

  21. Lindsay
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 20:07:35

    Comfort reads are definitely books I re-read, although some authors are comfort authors as well because I know I’ll enjoy what I’m reading and won’t be so annoyed at the characters/situation/writing I’ll be distracted and grumpy. When I comfort read it tends to be when I’m really feeling awful, and the books I read are not necessarily soft and fluffy — honestly, my biggest comfort reads tend to be sci-fi or fantasy and people die and terrible things happen. Heck, in the one I re-read the most the main characters don’t survive the end! But it’s more about familiar passages and emotional arcs at that point.

    I am a big re-reader, although it’s not necessarily for comfort. I have memory problems, so if I re-read a book once a year I generally don’t know what happens or how it ends, and often find myself reading a book I’ve already read 6 months ago that feels vaguely familiar but I still don’t know how it ends. I used to have post-its in the front covers of some of my books warning if it had a happy or sad ending so I wouldn’t accidentally re-read something that would make me feel worse than I already did!

    I’m not sure how regressive comfort reading is — just because something is familiar doesn’t mean you don’t get new things out of it, and if you really want to be pedantic then ALL re-reading is regressive because it’s a book you’ve already read, even if it was a day ago. I do have books that I will finish and re-read immediately after finishing because I know I will get more out of it the second time around but those tend to be massive fantasy novels. I’ll also re-read a series when a new book comes out so I’m not completely lost.

  22. Janine
    Mar 12, 2014 @ 01:43:45

    I definitely seek out catharsis in my reading. As long as a book has a convincing optimistic ending, I’m more than willing to read about tough or thorny problems along the way. I enjoy it when my emotions are engaged and in a way, the bigger the challenges the characters face, the more likely it is that I’ll be absorbed by the story.

    Having said that, if the ending is bleak, I may appreciate the greatness of the writing and be glad I read the book; I may even (if it truly is amazing) reread it, but chances are I won’t consider it comforting.

    For a book to comfort me, I have to, when I close it, feel some optimism for the situation I’ve read about. That doesn’t necessarily mean a romantic HEA or even an HFN (I don’t apply those standards to books outside the romance genre), but it does mean that I have to feel some positive step was taken, progress or growth on the part of the character took place, or at the very least, that there is hope for the future and all is not lost.

  23. Kris Bock
    Mar 12, 2014 @ 12:49:06

    One book I’ve read multiple times – including a few days ago – is Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It’s a very complex book, with a huge cast of characters and nearly every line packed with subtle humor. Plus, it’s very British, with language and concepts that might take Americans extra time to process. (I’m American.) But since I’ve read it before, I can enjoy the clever subtleties without working too hard. And I know everything’s going to work out all right in the end. This makes it a sort of comfort book to me. The previous two books I’d read were disappointing – pretty good until the end, where they devolved into ridiculous plot twists and themes I found offensive. I wanted something I could count on for a good read, and Good Omens worked.

  24. SonomaLass
    Mar 12, 2014 @ 13:44:16

    @Isobel Carr: “I may *intend* to only reread a favorite scene, and this discover that hours have passed and I’m nearly done with the book again, LOL! ” Yes! That’s me, too. Most of my keepers/comfort re-reads are fantasy novels, and a quick dip can turn into rereading entire trilogies.

    I don’t re-read romance very often, but there are authors whose new books are really comfort reads for me, because I know what I’m getting and it’s what I need. Most of those are gentle comfort, whereas many of my fantasy comfort re-reads are more cathartic. Some of them make me cry every time — knowing what’s coming just gets the tears going sooner. When I’m in a rough place emotionally in real life, I know that I need just the right book, and that’s an easier call to make with the familiar.

    I don’t think returning to books that are less challenging is “regressive,” exactly. When my father died, one way I processed my grief was by re-reading the Oz series — books I read over and over as a child, most of them gifts from my parents, that I read to my own kids as they were growing up. I don’t relate to those stories the same way in my 50s that I did in my tween years; the interaction between text and reader (which is the essence of the reading experience) is different
    because I am different. I don’t regress to childhood, mentally or emotionally, in that experience.

  25. Joy
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 09:26:52

    For me, a comfort read is a re-read of a book I really love. And it’s just like a visit with an old friend. And I often get something new out of it, as there are always new details that stand out, more things I notice, etc. It doesn’t matter if the book has a happy ending, or is catharatic, although I tend to revisit novels that have the theme of personal growth through hard times.

  26. Lynn Rae
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 19:12:51

    I definitely have comfort reads and in fact I re-reading one right now; Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. It clocks in at around 800 pages, not including footnotes and appendices. This is probably the tenth time I’ve read it and I love it every time. The last time I read it was three years ago when my husband suffered a stroke while on a business trip and I had to drive over three hundred miles to get him at the hospital, not knowing how much brain damage he’d suffered. For the first time in his life, I had to leave my four year old son in the care of someone other than me. Other than packing a few clothes, Gospel was the only other thing I thought to bring.
    This book is like a friend to me; it entices me away from the stress of the world, its characters are fascinating and real, there’s a quest through archives and exotic places, and the questions about God and faith it raises still make me think ‘big thoughts’. I can’t ask for more from a book and that’s why I continue to re-read it.

  27. Elizabeth Cole
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 10:25:15

    I love re-reading, and comfort and familiarity are a huge part of it. But I object to the idea that it’s unchallenging. I reread series because I want to check in with favorite characters (hello, Anne of Green Gables!), or to remember how a certain scene played out. “Comfort” reads can be really deep. The hot cocoa and bunny slippers are optional.

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