Writer’s Note: Not so long ago as we struggled with the pandemic chaos, one of my columns was about comfort foods. Many of you enjoyed that one, and your list of comfort foods left me reaching for a snack!
This time I’m looking at a different source of comfort — that which books (those that we especially love and often read more than once) offer us during trying times. During my research, I learned a lot about “comfort books” and was introduced to “bibliotherapy” — a recognized therapy I had no idea existed.
There may be help for us after all where we might least expect it — between the covers of a favorite book. —GP
Throughout 2020 we have struggled with the chaos in which we find ourselves. Nothing — and I do mean nothing — seems to be settling down. Political ideologies are dividing families. Economic realities are stretching resources. Restrictions on movements and gatherings are isolating many. A pervasive undercurrent of fear of the future is overtaking even those who outwardly appear calm.
As I’ve struggled, I’ve been cooking. This is not unusual for me — I love to cook — but because Jim and I haven’t been able to go out to eat for months, I’ve been doing a LOT more cooking than usual. Other than the Sonic drive-in or Olive Garden’s curbside — both good but not the same as going in, sitting down, sipping a glass of wine, and perusing a menu — it’s been home-cooking for us.
Recently I found myself cooking foods with a European theme. It began with a classic French peasant stew, the cassoulet. Jim first had it in Rouen, France, at Restaurant La Petite Auberge. It was love at first bite! He kept thinking about that dish the rest of our trip. When we got home, I began looking for recipes. Fortunately, Martha Stewart came through. The fact that her cassoulet took several days to make did not deter, and the finished product did not disappoint. (Years later I found a much quicker version for cassoulet that took two hours instead of two days with the finished product just as delicious.)
The next dish I found myself making was lasagna, another of Jim’s favorites. This, too, is a Martha Stewart recipe and a good one. It introduced me years ago to bechamel sauce, the perfect substitute to the “pounds” of mozzarella and ricotta usually found in lasagna. The result was a lighter lasagna, and a richer-tasting one.
From there, I moved to manicotti. I had never made manicotti, but suddenly, I had to try it. Using my own recipe for the meat sauce and Giada De Laurentiis’ tips for a “better manicotti” I conquered that dish.
As I looked over my choices for meals, I realized that I was making dishes inspired not only by trip memories but also by books that I was currently reading — specifically, “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Frances Mayes). I had recently been reaching for books to re-read that I have loved for years. That made me wonder — is there such a thing as “comfort books” that we are drawn to in times of stress?
Bibliotherapy . . .
My curiosity led me to a fine article by Kate Jackson (“Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Words” Social Work Today November/December 2016 Vol. 16 No.6 P.10) that helped me understand that my instinctive reaching for old favorites was, in fact, a recognized therapy. Jackson writes that we all use bibliotherapy during our lives as we read books or write down our thoughts.
“Reading for pleasure, with no motive to heal, can be deeply therapeutic for many,” Jackson writes. “Social workers are employing bibliotherapy any time they simply, though strategically, recommend a book to a client. Whether they call it ‘bibliotherapy’ or label it with a number of terms of similar, if not identical, practices such as poetry therapy, journal therapy, or writing therapy. . . therapists can also combine this approach with other therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavior therapy to help almost any client.”
There is disagreement as to when bibliotherapy was first discussed in professional literature, but most agree that modern psychologists didn’t discover it. Those familiar with Egyptian history may know that Pharaoh Ramses II had an inscription carved above the entry to his library: “Healing-place of the Soul”. The pharaoh knew the importance of books to one’s wellbeing — and those of us who love libraries and books know that, too.
The fact that I was rereading Frances Mayes’ travel memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and had then ordered the sequel that I had never read, “Bella Tuscany,” was enough evidence for me that I was seeking out comfort from reading.
And I was not alone.
At the same time that I was cooking Italian and reading about Tuscany, Jim mentioned that he would like to reread some books by an author he had enjoyed when he was a teenager. The author was Rex Stout, and Jim remembered that his detective fiction was outstanding. Thirty-three novels and 39 novellas written by Stout between 1934 and 1975 featured detective Nero Wolfe and his able assistant Archie Goodwin. Jim remembered Wolfe as being brilliant but sedentary; Archie was his “eyes and ears” and functioned as narrator.
Jim ordered three of Stout’s earliest books and thoroughly enjoyed rereading them. It was interesting what he remembered — how sharp Archie was —and what he had forgotten — that Nero drank lots of beer.
Like the English professor he is, Jim said that he would be interested in seeing how Stout’s writing style might have changed over the years. To satisfy his curiosity, he ordered three more of Stout’s works — these written toward the end of the series. As he read these later works, he noted the growing maturity in Stout’s writing with satisfaction.
Turns Out Y’all Are
Reaching for Old
Favorites, Too . . .
Believing that Jim and I couldn’t be the only ones, I inquired through social media to see who else had books that they considered “comfort books” to be read during chaotic times. Turns out quite a few folks do! Several said that just reading was enough to comfort, no matter the book. Others, however, were specific in their choices.
The majority named Southern fiction as their “go to” genre. “A Confederacy of Dunces” (John Kennedy Toole) got high marks for its humor — humor that becomes more apparent with each rereading for many. “Gone with the Wind” (Margaret Mitchell) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee) were listed because of their ability to transport us to another time — and no matter how unsettled those times were, readers found comfort there. Still others mentioned Southern authors rather than specific works — James Lee Burke, John Grisham, Frank Yerby, and Flannery O’Conner.
For some, the current political climate drove them to works that feature the founding fathers (“Young Patriots: The Remarkable Story of Two Men, Their Impossible Plan, and the Revolution That Created the Constitution” by Charles Cerami and “The Federalist Papers” by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison). Perhaps because of that same climate, some were drawn to religious writings such as “The Case for Christianity” (C.S. Lewis) and the Psalms.
A British masterpiece (“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen) was cited by several as a specific “comfort” book. Of “Pride and Prejudice,” one responder said, “There is something about the sweetness of it. The family dynamics, all the drama, but all resolved with so much love and caring. . . How when one falls in love and marries it’s forever. Daddy’s and daughter’s rule. Sisters are forever. Love hurts and always wins in the end.”
Some returned to “old friends” from their own childhoods. One responder received “Little Woman” when she was a girl and read it three times before she was 20. “Now that I have my own ‘little women’, I can see and love all the myriad personality nuances in my twin daughters. I celebrate the spirit of each of Alcott’s little women as I celebrate it in my own daughters.” For many, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” (Judy Blume) continues to inspire even decades after the first reading it as do Blume’s “Fudge” series.
Such works as “Winnie the Pooh” (A.A. Milne), “The Pickwick Papers” (Charles Dickens), and “Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch” (Alice Hegan Rice) are among those that several find themselves enjoying once again.
One friend cited “Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art” by Christopher Moore as her current favorite reread (3 times and counting). This satire set in the 1800’s that pokes the French Masters a little never ceases to amuse her. Another, dedicated to the well-being of our school children, reads “Teacher Man” (Frank McCourt) to remind herself just how important — and challenging — teaching is.
Radio personality Garrison Keillor once said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.” And what a gift it is! Now settle down with your favorite comfort book and enjoy. It’ll do you good!