The first cold snap and the first cold virus have taken hold in our house, calling for desperate measures. I burrow through the drawer stuffed with medications that I buy but seldom use and find the oddly comforting Chinese herbal syrup “Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa.” Once mixed with hot water, this drink has some sort of restorative power, reminding me of my mother’s home remedies from long ago. I’m not sure whether it is the elixir’s taste of herbs and plants (the label boasts extracts of 15 plants including snakegourd seed and common coltsfoot flower—who knew?) or the mere act of drinking a warm medicinal concoction, but the overall effect is soothing.
This time of year calls for
comfort medications and foods,
and of course, comfort reading.
Comfort reading is defined by the individual and the circumstances that call for the comfort read. What eases my anxiety, for example, is not necessarily literature that would calm and reassure anyone else. It is all in the eye and mind of the beholder/reader. Here are some of my suggestions that have provided relief.
Back to the classics: For me, classics with (mostly) happy endings always provide welcome distraction. I used to reread Jane Austen’s works in February when I lived in New England, searching for warmth and wit in dialogue to contrast with the long dark evenings. Though I never appreciated Charles Dickens’ works when force fed them in school, I find diving into one of his novels a perfect antidote for depression. Filled with memorable characters, some downright hilarious (Flora F. with her compulsive and oddly flirtatious verbosity comes to mind from Little Dorrit), his novels are stunning creations of Victorian life. His keen wit and observations on human character are timeless, and the novels move at lightning speed.
Back to old friends: During a stressful time when I knew I was on the edge of sleep-deprived madness, my daughter recommended rereading the Harry Potter books. Transported as I was into this alternate universe, I relaxed and was able to fall asleep easily once I turned off my light. As a huge fan of children’s and young adult literature, I find revisiting well-loved books from childhood a respite when dealing with stress. I was not much of a reader until I happened to choose The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare for a third grade book report. This book follows the orphaned heroine as she moves from a relaxed life as a titled landowner’s granddaughter in Barbados to a Puritan community in Connecticut Colony in the 1700s. A Newbery Medal winner, Speare’s engaging book engendered in me a lifelong love of historical novels and nonfiction. Young adult/children’s literature makes great comfort reading with fast-moving plots, winning characters, and an economy of words.
Back to being the listener: One evening I was waiting breathlessly for pain medication to take effect, when I asked my husband to read to me from the book he was currently enjoying. Janisse Ray’s simple, evocative prose in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood kept me engaged and calmly, sweetly entertained. How can you not feel better listening to an account of growing up in a junkyard in 1960s South Georgia? The book itself was soothing, but so was the restful act of listening. It made me remember that in the past reading aloud to one another was a well-accepted pastime and not just for children.
Those are my ideas for comfort reading. What books soothe you in your moments of high stress, anxiety and sadness? Have you ever read aloud to another person on a regular basis? Please share your ideas for comfort reading. —Claudia
When my children were growing up, my husband and I took turns reading to one or the other of our children. My son and I enjoyed all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. “The Tales of Olga Da Polga,” about a guinea-pig, and by Michael Bond, was a great read for the two of us.
Loved your take on comfort reading. I believe the Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa syrup definitely deserves a try. Chrinda