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Comfort read bookshelf: 10 favourite books to comfort and reassure

What makes the perfect comfort read? Jane Sullivan, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald describes a comfort read as the ‘literary equivalent of a nice bowl of chicken soup, or bread and butter pudding’ (naming Barbara Pym as her favourite comfort author). Familiarity is often a plus. When we go back to books for a reread we’re not trying to figure out the plot. Knowing the outcome is comforting, and leaves us free to enjoy all the details along the way. 

Love, Nina is a recent entry into my own personal comfort read canon. The book takes the form of a series of letters home recounting Nina Stibbe’s experiences as live-in nanny looking after the two sons of London Review of Books founder Mary Kay Wilmers. A lot of the fun comes from the insight into the domestic lives of this literary clique: Alan Bennett is a regular for dinner while luminaries like Jonathan Miller living nearby lend plungers or bags of sugar as required. First time around I enjoyed the book, but didn’t realise what a special place it would come to have in my heart. Picking it up again recently I read it straight through with delight and realised this is the book to turn to when contemporary life seems overwhelming. It’s set in the pre-smartphone era and something about the idea of these letters travelling home full of funny, gossipy details about London life, perfectly captured by Stibbe, suddenly seems a precious thing to be cherished – the reread sealed its place in my heart. If you enjoy Love, Nina you can catch up with her latest adventures in Went to London, Took the Dog, her diary of a recent year spent in London, renting a room from author Deborah Moggach.

What else? I’m thinking perhaps of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which I can read again and again and always find joy. The heroine, Flora Poste, is very sure of herself and possibly would be more than a little annoying to live with, but she arranges things so effectively, sorts out her eccentric Starkadder relations with aplomb and manages to make everything so much nicer it’s impossible not to be captivated by her, or feel inspired by her proactivity. (Incidentally, in moments of crisis herself Flora turns to Abbe Fausse-Maigre’s Higher Common Sense, a book never far from her side.)

E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady is another reliable delight, particularly at this time of year when I start to feel fretful about not having planted any bulbs. I might not have all that much in common with Delafield’s upper-class heroine, and yet, somehow, as she struggles to run her household, look after her children (with the help of an extremely touchy French governess), manage her domestic help, eke out her small budget and keep her head above water when it comes to discussing the latest art exhibition at dinner parties, I find I can relate. The Virago edition comes with this wonderful introduction by Jilly Cooper (reprinted here in The Guardian).

An outlier comfort read of mine is Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins, perhaps because it’s a book about people who thought very carefully about how they wanted to live. Gerald and Sara Murphy created a special atmosphere at the house they built on the Cote d’Azur, attracting writers and artists such as Picasso and the Fitzgeralds. And while their volatile friends certainly had their ups and downs, Gerald and Sara seemed serenely immune to upset. Theirs is a heartbreaking story because despite all their contrivances, life and fate eventually took their toll. The way Tomkins has told their story, though, always seemed to me a beautiful meditation on lives well-lived.

My father was a great Dick Francis reader, and as a result I’ve pretty much read the whole collection. Francis wrote around fifty crime thrillers, always with the same likeable and pragmatic male-protagonist who appears in different guises from book to book. They feel a bit dated these days but I still think you can pick up any Dick Francis novel and be assured of a good read. One of my favourites is To The Hilt, one of his later novels with a pleasingly intricate plot and an intriguing hero in the form of artist Alexander Kinloch. Although Kinloch lives alone in the Scottish highlands (where he paints or wanders round moodily playing his bagpipes), it’s not long before he finds himself at a racetrack trying to protect a racehorse owned by his father-in-law’s brewery. It’s a good crime thriller but also has interesting themes to do with time, love and loyalty that make for a satisfying read.

When I want to feel intrepid I turn to Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, my favourite travel memoir. These days anyone with the budget can go to the Antarctic on a cruise ship and admire the penguins. Wheeler went when the only people there were scientists, almost exclusively male. She spends time living on different research bases, is welcomed by the Americans and New Zealanders, and is subject to misogyny and abuse from the Brits (while she didn’t appreciate their behaviour, she was wise enough to understand their reaction to her presence). Her sharp social observations of these close-knit scientific communities are juxtaposed with tales of early explorers such as Scott, Shackleton and Cherry-Garrard, men with beards who went to test out how dead they could get, as she puts it at one point. She is not mocking them, however, far from it. Instead she vividly relates their stories and helps convey the powerful lure the White Continent still holds. (If you think this sounds up your street I also highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, a gem of a memoir that relates Ritter’s experiences living in an isolated hut in the Arctic.)

And while we’re on this theme, in my comfort read pile I’d also like a copy of The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman, which comes with a charming introduction by Bill Bryson in the Penguin edition. This short novel gently and brilliantly lampoons feats of manly derring-do – ‘To climb Mount Blanc is one thing; to climb Rum Doodle is quite another’, but what made me love it is that it’s also full of heart. For a comfort read to work I think you need to be able to feel the love.

As I’ve reached the stage in my reading life where books about books please me as much as the books themselves. Oliver Darkshire’s Once Upon a Tome filled me with delight. If you like your accounts of the antiquarian bookselling world to come with a touch of Dungeon Master, Darkshire is for you. Sotheran’s booksellers was established in 1761 and has been at its location in Sackville Street since the 1930s. Darkshire sets the scene: ‘There’s something profoundly otherworldly about Sackville Street. Not in the manner of mischievous sprites or sparkly unicorns, but evocative of a strange cairn deep in the country that you warn children away from, or an heirloom necklace made entirely of teeth.’ He charts his experiences from his first role as a junior apprentice (as an undiagnosed narcoleptic he kept falling asleep on the job – at Sotheran’s it took a full year before his employers mentioned it) to gradual mastery of the trade and the people within it, whether staff or a delightfully oddball mix of customers. Just as I thought I couldn’t love the book more I discovered it ends with a mini role-playing game where you can experience the joys of bookselling for yourself – you just have to balance your money, time and patience.

Books about books are a particular pleasure of mine, and I could go on, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more which is Alba Donati’s Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop. I found so much to love about this, which tells of publishing industry veteran Donati’s quest to open a bookshop in her tiny Italian hometown (population less than 200 people). Nothing about her project is easy, and she has to overcome significant local opposition, but I rooted for her all the way, and loved her reflections on bookselling and her reading life. She also writes beautifully about the town itself, and the people who inhabit it. It is my dream to visit this bookshop in person one day.

Of course it goes without saying that in times of trouble both Laura and I turn immediately to our Georgette Heyer collection. If you’re not familiar with Heyer’s work we’ve covered the must-reads (and a few to avoid) in this article we worked on a while back. Try Venetia or Frederica for starters, The Grand Sophy is a delight apart from one chapter it’s best to skim read. Less-well-known favourites include False ColoursThe Reluctant Widow and Sylvester.

Finally I bring you The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt, which in her afterword we learn was born out of her frustration at her experiences with the publisher of her first book, The Last Samurai. Unexpectedly it became a bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries, but as I understand it the publishing contract she had been offered was written in such a way as to favour the publishing house to the extent that she received very little of the profits (and the UK copyeditor had so many edits, DeWitt felt the book was all but destroyed). Now published by US indie New Directions, who seem to thoroughly appreciate and support her, all has been channelled into this beautifully packaged novella in which a young woman recounts her unusual upbringing in affluent circumstances, and her training in the art of fine living. It turns out that things are not what they seem, but I won’t spoil the reason this book is such a delight, I’ll just leave you to read it find out for yourself. 

There are lots of worthy of books in the world, and heaven knows, the Booker shortlist, which I must and will read, is full of them. But sometimes you just want to read something, as Dr Bach might say, to comfort and reassure. I hope you’ve enjoyed my favourites. Comment and tell me yours.

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