During the holidays, I thought I spotted a common thread in the other Ladies’ posts: every so often, someone would say that after she completed a task, finished a job, or visited the in-laws, she planned to reward herself by reading a book. Or if somebody had suffered a disappointment, she wanted to cheer herself up with a book. If somebody needed a present, she bought a book. Reading, everyone said, is comfort and joy.
Is it just us? I wondered. Or does everybody find happiness in reading?
The Gideons certainly did. In 1908, this group of businessmen started a fund to place a Bible in every American hotel room so travelers could find solace there. Selected passages were described as suitable for “comfort in time of adversity, sorrow, loneliness, suffering.”
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in the 1620s, is arguably our first self-help book. His account of depression includes both caustic and satirical opinions. He says in the preface: “I write of melancholy, by being busie, to avoid melancholy.” How did his readers take it? The volume was reprinted at least a half-dozen times in Burton’s own lifetime, and in his biography of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell says that the Anatomy of Melancholy “was the only book that ever took [Johnson] out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” So it would seem that Johnson found comfort—or energy!—from Burton’s thoughts.
Usually, though, we don’t think of four-hundred-year-old books about melancholy as a fun read. Usually we mean something lighter. Some of the Ladies seem to prefer British writers of certain eras: P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie. British = comforting for many of us.
Of course, the Ladies are all about romance. Some prefer historicals: Loretta Chase, Julia Quinn, Julie Anne Long, Courtney Milan. Some prefer contemporaries: Jenny Crusie, Nora Roberts, Daphne Du Maurier, Janet Evanovich. Sagas and sci-fi also get their due: Lois McMaster Bujold and James A. Michener have been mentioned on these pages many times. I’m not a frequent reader of YA or children’s literature, but I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Who can’t laugh at the deeply disappointed and resigned Eeyore, the officious and busy Rabbit with all his friends and relations?
One thing that’s certain: comfort reading is an individual taste. In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell describes how he was saved from suicide at 17 by a revelation he found in a book of mathematics. However, a book of mathematics might drive me to suicide. Or at least to drink.
So, are you feeling comfortable yet? Maybe it’s time to curl up with a good book.