Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


My Comfort Books

When the world is a tad grey or my mind too weary to see much good in it all, I usually sit down with a sigh on my little couch, pull my curtains closed and reach for a good book. While I do identify on some level with the three kinds of people mentioned in the last post, it is to books, most often a novel, that I usually turn in times of distress, discouragement, or general disillusionment with life. I think this is because usually what I am in need of is freshened sight, rekindled wonder, or just a good stiff dose of hope. My best beloved stories are the ones in whose vision of the world I can dwell as in a shelter. I love books that allow me to see the beauty of the world afresh through their words, whose narrated worlds reaffirm the possibility in my own. Tolkien made quick, scornful work of the critics who accused readers of fantasy or fiction of 'escapism'. The critics, huffed Tolkien, confuse 'the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter'. We read fantastical tales and imagined worlds not to escape reality, but to discover it afresh. When our capacity to see and wonder has been diminished by exhaustion, grief, or boredom, a fairy tale (or any good novel in my opinion) puts us in an imagined world where we realize anew ‘the potency of words, and the wonder of things such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’ (From the essay 'On Fairy-Stories'.)

Tolkien's word for it was Recovery. Recovery of vision, of wonder, of hope. And the books I read for comfort are the ones whose worlds help me to win back my own sense of wonder and with it, my will to create, to love, to work once more in my own circle of days. My favorites?

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge :: The tale of Mary, a competent and accomplished London woman who inherits a country home and decides to leave the whirl of modern life behind to inhabit the deep quiet of the countryside and keep faith with the wise and suffering woman who gave her the house. One of the most atmospheric stories I've ever encountered, this book has a power to still and nourish the soul by the sheer quality of description. Goudge doesn't describe the echoing hush of a country night, she evokes it. You feel immersed in it, in her own thoughts as they turn toward prayer, her growing capacity for hush, and in that illusive thing called 'the scent of water'.

Other beloveds by Goudge: Pilgrim's Inn, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Rosemary Tree, The Little White Horse

The Genesis Trilogy by Madeleine L'Engle :: I first read this when I was sixteen years old and heartily doubting God's love. L'Engle, with her grateful joy in the beauty of the earth, her embrace of doubt as a way of walking toward faith, and her trust in the utter goodness of God's love, restored my capacity to hope. In this trilogy, she takes biblical tales like those of Jacob, Abraham, and Adam, weaving them with memoir, poetry, and her own stories in a sort of contemplative journey toward faith.

Other beloveds by L'Engle: The Irrational Season, A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water

Remembering by Wendell Berry :: A strange, and at first, discomfiting book, this short novel is meant to liven the reader to the strange and estranging ways of the modern world. I didn't like it at first. But as I read, as I journeyed with the protagonist Andy, as he faces his bitterness and disillusionment, discovering again the essential 'blessedness' of his life, I was able to grasp afresh the blessedness of my own, and the possibility of thanks that is always present because of the way we are held by the love of God and others, even when 'we cannot hold'.

Other beloveds by Berry: Hannah Coulter, The Art of the Commonplace, Fidelity, Life is a Miracle

The Sign of Jonah by Thomas Merton :: I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore several years ago. I didn't expect anything dramatic, but as I explored this early journal of the famous monk and writer, Thomas Merton, I was refreshed and delighted by his workaday observations on life in a Trappist monastery. His small delights in a cloudscape or a note of music, his frustration with his brothers, his boredom with details, his hunger for something beyond the horizon matched the ruminations of my own restless soul and helped me to see that whether in the cloister or the world, the possibility of wonder, the presence of joy, and the need to love with grit and grace, are ever the same.

Other beloveds by Merton: Seeds of Contemplation, No Man is an Island, Bread in the Wilderness

Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say) by Frederich Buechner :: I read this when I'm sorrowing, angry, grieved, or just a bit peeved with the shatteredness of the world. With a title based on King Lear's famous statement in the moment of his undoing ('the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say'), Buechner examines four writers - Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and G.K. Chesterton - whose times of greatest darkness forced them beyond the bounds of popularity or reason to speak, in story and poem, the deepest and hardest truths they knew. A beautiful account of the way that suffering can sometimes reveal hope in a depth and quality we have never touched before.

Other beloveds by Buechner: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale, The Sacred Journey

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien :: I think I will always return to this book as the one to 'stab my spirit broad awake' (as Robert Louis Stevenson says). Having encountered it in my first sorrow, I will always be shaped by its high beauty and alpine courage, its knowledge of pain and its pilgrim journey toward hope. The characters in Middle Earth taught me to live the hard life (which is all life in this world) well, and I will always return to its pages to remember that anew.

Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery :: I simply can't not include an Anne book. A couple of years ago I had a conversation with two other women my age about how a whole generation was raised to see the world along with Anne. That meant a world that sparkled with personality, with beauty that pulsed afresh every day, with quirky people to love, with boundless scope for imagination, and an endless supply of adventure. I wouldn't trade a childhood immersed in these books for anything. Anne of Avonlea is one of my favorites because it is steeped in the homey world of Green Gables, but with Anne old enough to dream and desire and explore. I am always refreshed by a mental ramble in PEI.

Other beloveds by Montgomery: Anne's House of Dreams, Rilla of Ingleside, The Golden Road, Emily of New Moon, Kilmeny of the Orchard

Tasha Tudor's World :: This isn't a novel, but it feels like a storybook. Tasha Tudor was an eccentric, stubborn, and utterly delightful old woman who lived the whole of her modern life (she died just a few years ago) in the style, rhythms, manners, and work of the early 19th century. A keeper of corgis and goats, a gardner extraordinaire, marvelous cook, and very beloved illustrator of children's books she lived in her own vivid, chosen world of earth and garden, friendship and artwork and steadfastly kept it until the end. In a day and age whose work and craze seems intent on robbing the world of wonder, Tasha Tudor is an agent of re-enchantment for many, and I have always loved her for it.

I have so many more. I'm just getting to love Marilynne Robinson, I've long loved Evelyn Underhill. And Malcolm Guite's poetry. But I must stop! Thank you so very much for the comments with lists of your own comfort books in the previous post. (Keep them coming!) I now have a booklist and wishlist to keep me in curiosity the rest of the year. I look so forward to discovering new worlds...