“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” (Jane Smiley)

Hello you gorgeous creature.  Yes, you.  I’m talking to you.  You’re lovely.  Thank you for visiting my blog, I really appreciate it.  And I’m confident in my assertion that you’re lovely, because in the short time I’ve been blogging, I’ve been struck by what a great community the blogosphere (as I’ve encountered it) is.  Recently there’s been a lot of attention in the media given to trolls, and the very real havoc they can wreak.  While this atrocious, it’s also true that “Two Bloggers Disagree – Lively & Respectful Debate Ensues” is not a headline you’ll see anytime soon.  People behaving well is just not newsworthy.  So this week I thought I’d make the theme of my post comfort reading.  A cosy corner to celebrate the niceties of life, with you, my fellow bibliophiles and general all round good-eggs.  Pull up an overstuffed chair, wrap yourself in a quilt, keep the hot chocolate and cake within arm’s reach – let’s get cosy and settle down to some books!

Firstly, Emma by Jane Austen (1815, my edition  Wordsworth, 1992).   I chose this novel because I remember the first time I read it, once all the characters were introduced, thinking “well, I can see exactly how this is going to play out”.  And I don’t think I’m particularly clever or insightful, I think most readers would experience the same.  It’s not that it’s a badly written book, far from it, but just that nowadays we’re used to these sorts of plotlines (romantic story arc, some misunderstanding and confusion, resolution leading to reunited lovers) and I think there’s comfort to be gleaned from that predictability.  I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but I imagine it’s a similar sort of deal – you get to walk away from the novel with the ends nicely tied up and equilibrium restored.  And that can be very comforting.  So let me introduce you to:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Emma is not necessarily all that likeable – she’s a spolit snob who thinks she knows what is best for people.  But Emma grows and matures throughout the novel and becomes more humble, and fundamentally has her heart in the right place, so it’s difficult not to warm to her.  The novel is resolutely domestic, as Emma concerns herself with her neighbours and plots to arrange romantic attachments.  The plot is slight, but Emma sees Jane Austen writing as a confident and accomplished author, and the story is delivered with great verve.  There are plenty of Austen’s aphorisms to enjoy:

“It was a delightful visit;-perfect, in being much too short.” 

“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.” 

“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” 

I had a tutor who specialised in Austen, and told me she enjoyed her because she was such an absolute bitch, at odds with her rather twee image.  Certainly the portrayals of the vain, boorish characters pull no punches:

“Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton. Her observation had been pretty correct. Such as Mrs. Elton appeared to her on this second interview, such she appeared whenever they met again,—self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred. She had a little beauty and a little accomplishment, but so little judgment that she thought herself coming with superior knowledge of the world, to enliven and improve a country neighbourhood”

Ouch.  So if you fancy losing yourself in the domestic and romantic concerns of Regency England, just beware that all is not as cosy as it appears.  But Emma is still a comforting read, and one that is huge fun.

Secondly, A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (Vintage, 1999). I haven’t read much by this prolific and much-loved author, only this novel and Breathing Lessons, so forgive me if I seem to be saying very obvious things to established Anne Tyler fans out there. I chose it because I found it comforting read, suggesting there is hope for all of us and people are capable of giving a great deal to one another as we all muddle through life.  Anne Tyler has observed in an interview that “very small things are often really larger than the large things” and this is what she concerns herself with, the small things that hold great meaning in our lives.  A Patchwork Planet tells the story of Barnaby Gaitlin, a man whose life is not where he wants it to be, but he’s not sure what he does want.  His family struggle to forgive him after he was caught in high school breaking into peoples’ homes to go through their things and read their mail.  His ex-wife has moved away and taken their rabbit-faced daughter with her.  He works for Rent-a-Back, providing odd jobs for the elderly in the neighbourhood. He feels he is not the good person others think he is:

“Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know form birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy , thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? Isn’t it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people? Couldn’t that be the explanation?”

A Patchwork Planet is peopled with eccentric characters, Barnaby’s co-workers, clients and family. Tyler writes with warmth and acceptance for people in all their guises:

“Then Mrs Alford started sorting her belongings.  That’s always a worrisome sign.  For a solid week she had three of us come in daily – me, Ray Oakley, and Martine. (“Two men for the real lifting,” was how she put it, “and a girl so as to encourage the hiring of women.”) […] Half the time she called Martine “Celeste” which was the name of our other female employee, and I was “Terry”.

“It’s Barnaby, Mrs Alford,” I said as gently as possible.

“Oh! I’m sorry! I thought your name was Terry and you played in that musical group.””

The humour in A Patchwork Planet is gentle, and never at the expense of the characters. As Barnaby muddles his way through another year of his life, you’re left with the feeling that nothing’s perfect but it’s OK.  Sometimes it’s better than OK.  And we may all be alone, but we’re all in this together.  What’s more comforting than that?

Here are the books getting cosy, wrapped in a chunky woollen scarf I knitted (and got completely carried away with, it’s about 8 feet long, good job I’m tall):

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8 thoughts on ““Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” (Jane Smiley)

  1. I agree about the general good nature of Book Blog World – at least, as far as I have experienced it. Someone once said to me that it is a mark of civilised discourse that one may disagree without being disagreeable. Although, having said that, I do sometimes feel that I sometimes argue too passionately, and overstep the mark.

    And yes, we all have our comfort reads. At least, I do. I was intrigued to see “Emma” as one of your comfort reads. I have found Austen difficult, and only recently have I been coming round to her art. That she was a great novelist is beyond doubt, but I have, in the past, quite frequently, felt her too censorious of human behaviour for comfort. Of course, that’s a very unfair view: I am reading through all the Austen novels again, but I only recently finished “ense and Sensibility”, and “Emma”, her penultimate novel, is still some distance away, I think.

    My own comfort reading is inextricably linked to what I used to enjoy as a child – Sherlock Holmes stories, the creepy ghost stories of MR James, adventure yarns such as ”Treasure Island” or “Kidnapped” or “King Solomon’s Mines” or “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and so on. Opening one of these books is like coming home!

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    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response. You’ve hit straight on the problems I had writing this post! Firstly, I thought everyone has their own ideas of what is comforting and my comforts won’t be the same as anyone else. Secondly, we often retreat to childhood comforts and so I very nearly wrote about books from my childhood for this post. But I always nearly talk myself out of every post I write, so in the end I just went for it.

      I know what you mean about Austen. The “everything in its place” part of her writing is what can be comforting as it all comes together, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t find it horribly oppressive to live within the society of her books. If you’ve made it through Sense and Sensibility (which I think is very much Austen learning her craft and is not an easy read) I think you’ll fly through the rest! Her prose style improves with each book, and her mature novels (Persuasion and Mansfield Park) are more thematically complex than their predecessors (which I think makes them more interesting, but plenty think P&P is the masterpiece).

      Your childhood books have a significant overlap with mine – maybe I’ll try writing about childhood books for another post after all…

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  2. Lovely post. I don’t have many comfort reads (too easily distracted by shiny new releases!) but I do relish reading particular authors (Charlotte Wood and Sonya Hartnett for example) and I also read The Great Gatsby ever few years – I never tire of that story. My true comfort reading comes from reading to my kids, usually reading stories that I loved when I was little – heavy on the Enid Blyton and Milly Molly Mandy.

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    • There’s definitely something about the books of our childhood that cannot be beaten for the comfort they provide. And sharing them with a new generation, seeing their responses to the books afresh, is a fantastic way to keep enjoying them!

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  3. You know what I love the most about your blog? Your quote titles and thoughtful discussion posts. 🙂 Having this said, I also think that the Book Blog Community is very welcoming and I always feel sad when people start trolling and losing respect for each other. What’s the point of entering in a hatred circle? Anyway… I really liked Emma! Like you, I knew where the story was going, but I liked it nonetheless. I have to look into Anne Tyler’s books, since I’ve never heard of her before.
    As for my comfort books, I don’t have many. Austen is definitely among the few I have, and so is Juliet Marillier and Robin McKinley (I really like fantasy and their books are lovely).

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    • Hi, thanks for your kind comments (and thereby illustrating the post with a perfect example of how nice the book blogging community is!) I haven’t heard of Juliet Marillier or Robert McKinley, because I hardly read any fantasy novels, but I often enjoy the TV adaptations of fantasy so I think I should try and read this type of book more. I will keep a look out for these authors!

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