The Best Comfort Books

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 2, 2017

Books are magical, and bookstores are houses of magic. There’s something indescribably hopeful about being around all those stories and information on every conceivable interest or need—shelves and shelves of possibility jacketed in beautiful art. Familiar books are friends, while others are potential beloveds. Bookstores tend to be colorful, cheerful places, energetic but also soothing, restful, reassuring. I’ll bet my fellow booksellers can attest to the numbers of people who confide that they’ve come in for a little comfort after a hard week or a difficult loss. Sometimes these customers are seeking a book to help themselves or others through a painful time; at other times, they just want to soak up the warm papery goodness of being around so. many. books. Bookstores are like a literary bakery.
Because so many people look to bookstores for a little TLC, I’m always interested in discovering what others consider a comfort read. Here are a few of my own favorite books to revisit in times of trouble:

Voyage to the Bunny Planet is one of the all-time great comfort books. In its three stories, Rosemary Wells creates a reassuring world where beleaguered bunnies get to have the day that SHOULD have been, instead of the crummy day they actually had. This one is great for kids or adults, and it’s often mentioned by customers as one of their families’ favorite picture books to pull out after a hard day.

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Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major is out of print in this lovely version (the one that I have), but can still be found packaged with another short work by Tolkien, Farmer Giles of Ham. In Smith of Wootton Major, a baker’s apprentice swallows a faerie star baked into a birthday cake, which bestows a sort of charmed double life upon him. I loved the gentle luminous quality of this story as a child, and still find its lyrical storytelling enchanting and mysterious.
I always seem to find healing words in the poems of Mary Oliver and Naomi Shihab Nye, two of the most beautiful celebrants of human resilience and compassion ever to put pen to paper. Nye’s “Kindness” and “Red Brocade” and Oliver’s “Wild Geese” and “Morning Poem” are just a few favorites. It’s hard to go wrong with either poet; open any of their books to just about any page, and find your spirit renewed.

For sparkling writing and an escape from care, few books deliver as much lighthearted delight as Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a hilarious memoir of the author’s childhood adventures (and misadventures) on the island of Corfu, where his eccentric English family moved when Gerry was 10. It’s a wonderful book to give to convalescent friends, since it never veers into the tragic, bleak, or melancholy. The descriptions of the Greek landscape are gorgeous, and the renderings of his family’s absurdities are priceless.
What are your favorite comfort books, the ones you turn to and the ones you share with loved ones in times of need?

11 thoughts on “The Best Comfort Books

  1. Monica Edinger

    Just a heads-up regarding Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Having enjoyed so much the television version I listened to two readings of these stories. One was by Durrell himself and the other read by Hugh Bonneville. Both were delightful. However, I do want to alert readers that there are a few racial/ethnic discomforts. They are typical of the period, but will make you cringe today.

  2. Cynthia Compton

    Two titles came immediately to mind, Elizabeth, as I read your post, and I could find both on the terribly cluttered, disorganized family library this morning. One is more of a line I recite when the demands of work and motherhood and general busyness feel overwhelming:
    “Tired to the very bone,
    Mrs. Peters groaned a groan.
    She’d take the eggs down from the shelf
    And whisper weakly to herself,
    ‘What persnickety young eaters
    Are all my level little Peters.”
    (Mary Ann Hoberman for the win. She gets it.)
    The other is a worn yellowed hardcover copy of LONG EARS, THE LITTLE GREY DONKEY by Patricia Lynch, with a lovely little silver donkey on the cloth cover, first pubbed in 1943. I love the story, and have both “told” it and read it many times, but what gives me comfort are the details of the actual book. It was, according to the title page, “produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards” (I have no idea what this means, but how British and proper!) and my own copy was presented to “Elizabeth Benson, as a Prize in the School Course for the Session of 1943-1944, Senior School, Form 111, Signed by Headmistress C. Bewley at Alexandra School, Dublin, Est. A.D. 1873.
    Just holding it makes me feel settled, somehow.

  3. Kenny Brechner

    My two favorite comfort books are Three Men and A Boat by Jerome Jerome, and Right Ho Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. I also love to pull my old copy of Horton Hatches the Egg off the shelf for moments when one needs to feel that things can end up as they should.

  4. Susan Ohanian

    Voyage to the Bunny Planet is my all-time favorite comfort book. I’m glad to be reminded because I used to send it to adults in need. Then when I was in a deep funk my husband said, “Do you have a copy of that bunny book for yourself?
    I do.
    Thank you for this great list!

  5. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

    Monica, as I wrote this post, I wondered if there were dated passages I’ve forgotten. (Some of Durrell’s other books are very problematic.) My memory was that he lampoons both siblings and neighbors (not to mention himself) with equal verve. Is it worse than that?

  6. Don Reynolds

    Brian Wildsmith’s picture book retelling of LaFontaine’s fable, The North Wind and the Sun, helps centering one’s head.
    “So the Sun was able to achieve by warmth and gentleness what the North Wind in all his strength and fury could not do.”
    For more difficult times, it’s James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips wherein, “Never be afraid, Chips, that you can’t do anything you’ve made up your mind to. As long as you believe in yourself, you can go as far as you dream.”

  7. Eleanor Miller

    I’ve been thinking about what you’ve had to say, Elizabeth and feel I’d like to contribute my thoughts to the discussion. I pop up here periodically…an octogenarian currently still clinging to my home and surrounded by the books which I love that make my increasingly restricted life bearable…comfort indeed! More like manna in the wilderness! When I downsized to a condo (now almost two years ago) I cut roughly 4000 books in half, saving only the ones which I felt that I could/would(!) want to reread at some point in time. Well…that time’s here. Can’t get to the library….I’m on a walker/tethered to 50′ of oxygen cord and can’t leave the house because I can’t get in or out of a car. So what am I reading to comfort me in these adversities? Primarily same author series…dwelling in the same world for as long as I can: L.M. Montgomery/Frances Parkinson Keyes/Sharon Lee/Seanan McGuire/Julie Hyzy to name only a few. Mixed pickles truly, but I’m just so glad I thought to fill them before the roof caved in.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Mixed pickles! I love that phrase, and always love hearing about the books you admire, Ellie. Books are a unique kind of comfort, and so helpful in the hardest times. I’ll need to check out the authors I’m unfamiliar with (Julie Hyzy, Seanan McGuire). Thanks for the recommendations!

  8. Becky Dayton

    A full-throated second on Voyage to the Bunny Planet! I handsell this over and over and every member of my family can recite the opening passages.


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