The Value of “Comfort Books”

I’ve never been a person who was into easy reading. Popcorn books have never been my thing. I enjoy my literature deeper, darker, and with a nice bite. That’s just how I roll. However, with recent life events, I’ve found myself turning to those short, sweet, fun books more often than I ever really have before. It has made me reevaluate how I look at the books I read, and why I choose some books over others.

In the reviewing community, I often see words like “comfort reading” or “popcorn book” or others that mean the same thing. Usually these words are thrown around with a more negative connotation than a positive one. A book that is summed up as being a comfort/popcorn book is usually one that I won’t generally check out. For some reason, “comfort read” automatically means that the book will be of a lower quality than others.

However, recently, I’ve really been challenging that belief of mine. Life events have been transpiring, and I’ve wanted to turn to literature more for comfort, fun, and taking a vacation away from reality more than anything else. I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy books, some young adult books, and a lot of books that I’ve seen on other websites that have been summed up as “comfort” books or “popcorn” reads. Basically, I’ve been reading the books I usually avoid like they are covered in some horrible communicable disease.

In the years that I’ve been reviewing, I’ve learned that people who review typically read differently than the average reader. We don’t read better, but differently. I think we pay attention to more of the details and nuances that totally escaped me or didn’t matter when I wasn’t reviewing. Now, of course with blanket remarks, there will be people who this observation doesn’t apply to. Sometimes I think this different, detailed style of reading makes many of us reviewers (me included) purists, who have a certain standard and refuse to acknowledge the books that are below our standard. Yes, I’m guilty of this. The thing is, sometimes something happens that makes me realize how ridiculously wrong I was.

There are a lot of reasons people read, and there are a lot of reasons authors write the type of books they write. Words like “comfort” and “popcorn” don’t mean a book is subpar or beneath notice. There is a time and place for comfort reading, and those books shouldn’t escape our notice. Recent events, and my bend toward having fun while I’m reading rather than a desire to examine the nature of life has made me realize that these comfort books are just as well written, just as fun, just as vibrant and alive as the deeper, edgier and more thoughtful books.

Perhaps these comfort books won’t make you think about the meaning of life or make you look at politics differently, but there is something really important to be said for a book that can comfort someone when they need it most. Comfort books don’t have to be challenging, they are more like a warm hug at the end of a hard day – the embrace you get when you need that embrace the most. An author who can accomplish that feeling in his or her readers has real impressive storytelling skill, and that’s something I really haven’t noticed or acknowledged until recently. There’s something incredible to be said for a book that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside after a day of stress-induced headaches.

So what is the point of this whole diatribe? Try something new. Don’t reject or refuse to explore certain books because reviews have trigger words in them that put you off. Part of the joy of reading, whether you read as a reviewer, editor, author, or the average human, is to explore something new and stretch your horizons. We read because living one life isn’t enough for us. We read because we want to experience something new. We read because we want to take a vacation.

We read because it is fun. Period.

It’s a new year, and each new year I challenge myself to read a genre I typically try hard to avoid (this year it is YA and “comfort books”). That may seem like a ridiculous tradition of mine, and it probably is, but what fun is life if we aren’t willing to taste something different once and a while? I’m already discovering that there is a true art in writing a book that can touch a reader on a soul-deep level and remind that reader just what it feels like to be embraced and comforted, warmed after a very cold, hard. It takes some serious skill to sell me a happily ever after ending in a world where things seldom end that way.

Challenge yourself to read something new this year, something you typically wouldn’t read. You’ll be glad you did.

4 Responses

  • I have always kept a few comfort books around just in case. Yes, I want to read the genre pushing, force me to think, revolutionary books as well. But I usually like to follow them up with a Steampunk detective tale that is almost just like the last steampun detective tale I read, or perhaps a Star Wars book. Something I can read in a day even with lots of background noises.

    Reading has to be fun for me, first and foremost, or else I am doing it wrong.

  • The way I read “comfort” books is in two spheres:

    1. Audiobooks of books I’ve already read. I did this last summer, especially, on my road trip to Colorado. I’d already read Shades of Milk and Honey, The Half Made World and Bitter Seeds, but I wanted known quantities to eat up the miles of Iowa, Nebraska and more. It worked.

    2. Atlases and grazing books: Too tired or worn out to tackle the current (new) book? Browsing an atlas or other book I can dip into is a chance for me to read familiar, fun, comforting stuff.

    So, I save the challenge for the “ordinary reading” and I should challenge myself more.

  • Most of my intended comfort reading ends up being either Mercedes Lackey’s “Valdemar” books, or else other books that I’ve read before and have particular associations with them. Other books that end up with that label for me are ones that are good but that don’t require much investment when it comes to brainpower, books I can read when I’m feeling lousy or that make me feel better or that just satisfy that urge to read without needing to expand my mind into any shape other than what it currently is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I agree. Sometimes we all need that bit of comfort in our books, even when we do love to read to explore new things and places and ideas.

    A lot of the time those books are YA novels, admittedly, or novels that are more style than substance, especially the ones I didn’t go into knowing that I was reading them for comfort. I mentioned recently on Twitter than Jo Walton’s “Among Others” seems to be my go-to book whenever I’m in the kind of pain that keeps me confined to bed, in part because the protag also suffers from chronic pain, and in part because the book has just the right combination of magical realism, diary entries from a boarding school, and talking about awesome SFF books to trip all the right triggers with me when I want something I can relax with and that can distract me from my own situation. It’s a great comfort read for me.

  • To me “comfort books” have always been defined as those I go back to time and again. There is something about the world they unlock that brings me pleasure.

    I don’t know why we feel the need to downplay the books we like. Sure, there are some genre books that are less complex than others, but if we find ourselves having fun with a book we ought to just embrace it and be happy to claim it as an enjoyable read without feeling the need to qualify it. I know I feel the pressure to do that, as if we are being judged purely on a book or two that we might admit to liking.

    This community is VERY opinionated. The best thing to do to gain respect is to just be you, which means being willing to have “guilty pleasure”, “comfort”, or “popcorn” books that we are okay with saying we enjoy without feeling the need to say “hey, I read War and Peace too!”. 🙂

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