Without going into details, the last month has been… pretty stressful. And when I’m stressed, there are three things I reach for (well, after my husband; hugs are the best stress relief I know): gallons of chamomile tea, plenty of chocolate, and a comforting book.
Now, by “comforting,” I don’t necessarily mean cozy or warm-and-fuzzy. No one would describe “The Lord of the Rings” as either, and it’s been one of my favorites for years. For a book to fulfill my definition of comforting, it has to meet three criteria. It has to be familiar, which usually means I’ve read it before. It has to create a world I can lose myself in. And it has to have a good, satisfying ending.
Familiarity is the first criterion for a reason. When I’m feeling stressed, my mental and emotional energy is going into dealing with the situation; I don’t have a lot left to invest in something which may not satisfy criteria numbers two and three. I want the enjoyment of a good story, engaging characters, and an engrossing world. I don’t want to risk my few minutes or hours of escape on a book which could be disappointing or even disturbing. Sometimes I will try new book by a favorite author, since I can be fairly sure that I’ll like what I find inside, but generally, I turn to old friends, books I know and love. Relieved of worry about where the book is going, I can sit back and enjoy the ride.
A world I can lose myself in: This can be anything from Middle-earth to Lord Peter Wimsey’s London. The world created by the book needn’t be exotic, just vividly alive and different from my daily experience; I also prefer that it be neither squalid nor sordid. Fantasy and science fiction are obvious choices from this point of view, but so are British mysteries and historical novels. Books which meet this criterion provide a sense of being elsewhere, a mini-vacation from whatever is going on in my life. I emerge from the author’s world refreshed and more able to deal with my own.
A good, satisfying ending is my third and most important requirement. I want the protagonist to overcome obstacles, defeat evil, or at least emerge from his or her adverse circumstances stronger and wiser. In other words, I want hope. I need the book to remind me that I, too, will get through whatever difficulty I’m currently facing and come out stronger. That’s why I gravitate toward fantasy and mystery; both are genres in which, ultimately, good triumphs. The monster or Dark Lord is defeated; the murderer is caught. If there’s a romantic interest, love prevails. In reading these books, I find, ultimately, a renewal and reinforcement of optimism and faith.