THE COMFORT AND DISCOMFORT OF BOOKS
Comfort books remind me of comfort food. They’re tried and true volumes I consume when I’m (1) bored, (2) depressed, (3) lazy, (4) ill, (5) sick of humanity in its violent/evil guises, (6) sweltering in hot weather.
Since five of the previous six applied to me in the last several weeks, I plunged into a favorite space opera series. Lolling on the bed nearly all day, maintaining consciousness primarily through slurping coffee, I revisited a fantasy world in which good guys win. What could be more fantastic than that?
The triumph of good guys is also a hallmark of romances—they end happily. Whether crammed full of overt sex, or, like the variety I write, content with passionate kisses coupled with emotion, romances are favorite comfort books. Comfort books, like comfort food, meet expectations, frequently are indulged in with regularity, and create a nostalgic or warm sentiment in the person devouring them.
I thought I’d created the term “comfort books” until I went hunting online. I found a number of writers boast familiarity with this approach to reading. So much for originality. Still it’s reassuring to find cronies, to know I’m not the odd one out.
On the other hand, sometimes I search for a novel that challenges me to think, may even make me uncomfortable. That’s okay, especially if it whisks me away from my surroundings for a new world. This is one of the ways I decide if a book’s made a major impact on me. The process by which this happens isn’t simple, not a matter of exciting action or steamy love scenes. A combination of writing style and language, plot, compelling characters, and an unfathomable mixture of interesting ideas old and new are some of the qualities that go into what’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.”
In essence, although I know what I’m reading is imaginary, I react as though it’s real. And it changes me in ways I haven’t measured, provides knowledge, even, dare I claim?, wisdom. Some of the books that have done that for me are Main Street, Caramelo, Doomsday Book, Revolutionary Road, and The Things They Carried. These may not be your choices, but you might have your own favorites.
Strangely enough, there are books that are both challenging and comforting: Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games, A Tale of Two Cities. Note ALL my books are fiction. I know people who refuse to read fiction on the grounds that it’s not real, not for serious-minded people, it’s fluff. Stop and think a minute though: fiction is more truthful than nonfiction because it allows us entry into other people’s minds and emotions. It presents thoughts in action and practice. It’s the closest way we humans have to achieve eternity since every eon, each individual can be represented.
Readers and writers have sensed for centuries that reading impacts the brain’s emotions, thoughts, psychological states, and even intelligence. As usual with slap-your-face obvious opinion, various studies now substantiate this. Yes, reading fiction stimulates and strengthens certain areas in your brain. Yes, reading changes behavior. Changes can be positive, assisting you to function and relate better in the world. Or they can be negative, encouraging aggression and cruelty, setting you and those around you up for a world of trouble. A strong argument against casual violence, murder, and war in novels, littered with bodies like abandoned soft drink cans, as well as for thoughtful, positive, compassionate novels with happy endings.
I try to make my own writing incorporate the benefits. Superhuman achievements, extravagant wealth and grandiloquent language, political power or notoriety, or the external signs of success aren’t impressive to me. Instead, the wonder in the world around me, the respect I feel when an individual meets trouble with dignity and hard work, my amazement to learn of a small triumph in an everyday life motivate me.
The recent death of a friend underscored for me the importance living each day fully. I was reminded how fleeting our existence and how valued our senses, experiences and thoughts should be. For me, the path to this appreciation comes first through awareness, being outwardly directed, then internal interpretation through writing.
My new novel, Falling Like a Rock, features Elaine, a young woman struggling to find her best self and her way in life. Believing she needs to be perfect, at the same time trying to please others, including hero Joe Richter-Leon, she battles an eating disorder, romantic misunderstandings, and personal conflict before a raging wildfire forces her to focus on what’s really valuable.
So my writing, whether my fiction or my blog, explores the details of “ordinary people, extraordinary lives,” with humor, appreciation, praise, or awe, both the highs and lows of daily life. That’s also the approach of my comfort AND my discomfort books.
I’d be interested to know what books are your favorites. Which comfort you and which challenge you?
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Blog : BonnieMcCune.com