Comfort Reads

I posted some of this on Twitter over the weekend and thought I’d expand on it here. I’m a wimp under the best of circumstances. You could call me Wimp Empress of the Universe. I know that conflict is the heart of story, but I have a strong aversion to conflict. I have an overreactive sympathetic nervous system and have to take beta blockers to keep my heart rate and blood pressure at somewhat normal levels, and I’m rather empathetic, so I overidentify with other people’s emotions, even when they’re fictional.

Now, more than ever, we need some lower-stress entertainment. Some people may enjoy the catharsis of intense drama. But I think I’m not alone in wanting something comforting.

I’m sure everyone has their own stress triggers, but here’s what I consider a low-stress read:

  • Nothing really bad happens to main characters
  • Personal, rather than global, stakes
  • No emphasis on darkness or evil

I don’t think this has to be boring. Here’s a brief list of recommendations:

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis may be my all-time favorite book, and is a great comfort read. It’s a charming idyll in Victorian times. The goal is to find an ugly urn (and not break the space-time continuum). No villains or evil, but so much fun. The related books, The Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, are a lot more intense, but if you want a sometimes funny and ultimately hopeful book about pandemics, read The Doomsday Book, but it will hit pretty close to home right now so may not be the best thing to read (it’s a time travel book in which a character lands in the middle of the Black Death, and meanwhile a virulent flu is sweeping through the area in the “present,” so no one’s up to getting her out of where she is).

Terry Pratchett is a go-to for comfort reads. Funny, insightful, and even if things come to the worst, Death is a decent guy, so it’s not too dire. Maybe not the Guards books because bad stuff tends to happen to Sam Vimes. I’d probably lean toward the Witches books now, with Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad. You feel like Granny Weatherwax has things totally under control, and that’s reassuring.

I’ve been rereading the 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey. In these romantic fairytale fantasies, stories are magic, and knowing them gives you an advantage. Start with The Fairy Godmother, but after that they don’t require any particular order. They may be hard to find in print but seem to be available in e-books.

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a lovely fairytale fantasy of the sort that makes you sigh when you close the book after reading it. It’s much lighter than most of his other work.

Romances, especially romantic comedy, can be good at times like this, but one of my stress triggers is humiliation or embarrassment, and since a lot of the comedy comes from embarrassing things happening to the main character, sometimes those are too much for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t hide behind the sofa for scary monsters. It was sitcoms that sent me fleeing or hiding from secondhand embarrassment when the characters had humiliating things happen to them.

Jane Austen is a good bet. The writing style gives a bit of emotional distance, so it doesn’t trigger the intense empathy that makes the books painful to read. There’s humor and happy endings. Some of Georgette Heyer’s books work, but she tends to have plots involving gambling (another one of my odd stress triggers — I’m too cheap to gamble, and reading about people throwing money away bothers me), and she can get pretty racist.

One book that I think might work is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It’s a spoof of the “rustic romance” that was apparently popular in the early part of the 20th century. A sophisticated young woman goes to live with distant relatives on their farm, and she sets about tidying things up. There are helpful stars marking the most beautifully written passages. (The movie is also brilliant, but I’ll deal with movies later this week.)

Cozy mysteries might work, depending on how much peril the sleuth gets into and how much you worry about the victims. I like the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. I don’t recall being too terribly tense while reading them. Agatha Christie is also usually a good bet.

I think my books are generally good low-stress reads, though I’m sometimes pretty mean to poor Owen and Lord Henry. Still, it’s mostly light and fun. For contemporary fantasy, try Enchanted, Inc. For steampunk, Rebel Mechanics.

There were some responses by others on the Twitter thread. I don’t want to endorse something I haven’t read, but you can see the thread starting here.

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