Something we’ve been talking about at work a lot lately is how comforting it is to reread old favorites. For some of us (okay, me) that means rereading old-fashioned children’s books, either on my own or, increasingly, to my daughters. My husband rereads and relistens to books on mathematics, physics, and ancient history, taking comfort in the big picture. Friends, family, and coworkers have all spoken about the therapeutic value of thick fantasy novels, humor books, and realistic fiction that transports you into someone else’s problems.
Here’s a short list of the well-loved books gracing our bedside tables these days. We hope they bring you as much pleasure and comfort as they've been bringing to us.
Bookseller Tove writes, “This book is cathartic and reassuring and outrageously funny — a winning combination under normal circumstances, but downright necessary under the current ones. Pulling this off the shelf felt like getting together with an old friend.” Lawson is a longtime staff favorite for her ability to balance candid explorations of mental illness with a wicked sense of humor that not only lightens the difficulty of her subject matter, but makes it okay to examine and laugh at your own absurdities and vulnerabilities.
This is actually a recommendation to reread the entire Harry Potter series, which gets more sophisticated and exciting with each volume. The Harry Potter series tells the coming-of-age story of a boy wizard, and from talking portraits to fanged plants to house elves, it has all of the magic and adventure you could desire. I’ve been reading the series to my daughters ever since their schools closed in March and it’s absolutely the best part of our day. Plus, it’s been inspiring hours of peaceful imaginative play and even a broom-making session!
This is one of Erik Larson’s older books, but it’s also his best. A twin portrait of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to lure single young women to his boarding house of horrors, The Devil in the White City offers a fascinating exploration of the infrastructure and planning of a world’s fair — including its unique architecture, and the way it permanently altered life in the Midwest — and a thrilling account of a grisly killer. This isn’t “comfort reading” per se, but it’s the closest nonfiction gets to being the type of novel you read late into the night, both because you can’t wait to see what happens next and because you’re a little too scared to go to sleep.
If you haven’t touched a Steinbeck novel since high school, pick up East of Eden as soon as possible. This classic epic evades easy summarization — too much happens! — but its chief concern is the fraught relationship between brothers, and how the desire for love can be just as corrosive a motivating force as malice. What makes East of Eden a great candidate for rereading is that its complexity and personal resonance changes as the reader ages and gains life experience. Reading it for the first time at 12, I was mostly interested in Cathy’s salacious story of murder and prostitution; at 21, I felt keenly Cal’s sense of moral turmoil and desire for love. Now I read it as a parent, painfully conscious of Abraham’s weaknesses and his good intentions. It’s been wonderful every time; nah — it just gets better.
A lot of us have spent the past few months playing video games, watching ’80s movies, and pondering the future of humanity. Why not do all three at once by reading Cline’s magnificently fun debut novel, Ready Player One? Wade is a gaming nerd bent on winning the fortune hidden inside OASIS, a virtual utopia filled with riddles based on late 20th-century pop trivia. Bring on your Brat Pack, ’80s tunes, and soft-focus love interests! Ready Player One makes it possible to imagine a brighter future while safely ensconcing you in the past.
With all the ominous talk of a new “lost generation,” it’s bracing to dig into Hemingway’s story of the original Lost Generation. Disaffected and wounded, war veteran Jake Barnes is basically wasting time in France and Spain, drinking too much and mooning after Lady Brett, a divorced socialite who loves Jake but won’t commit to him. It’s a melancholy, frustrated novel written in Hemingway’s characteristically simple (but hiding mountains of repressed emotion) prose that perfectly expresses the uncertainty and listlessness of its characters. It’s not the happiest of books, but something about its willingness to explore the malaise that comes from not being able to see a clear future for oneself feels completely on point right now.
White Teeth was award-winning novelist and short story writer Zadie Smith’s debut work, but it is so wise and assured that you would never guess it. White Teeth follows two friends, WWII veterans Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, as they negotiate marriages, parenting, and the fraught multiculturalism of 1970s London. White Teeth is thoughtful and funny, taking pleasure in the tiny details that allow characters and settings to blossom in vivid hues and with great nuance. If realistic fiction is where you like to take shelter, you’ll be well-served by reading (or rereading) Smith’s masterful novel.
This is for those who, like my husband, take comfort in the cosmic view of human history, where our anxieties and traumas are eclipsed by the existential mysteries of the universe. Hawking’s classic text is a wonderful beginner’s guide to the arguments surrounding creation, and to phenomena like black holes, antimatter, and quarks. A Brief History of Time is a good reminder that what we’re experiencing is just a blip in the universe’s timeline. That doesn’t ameliorate the pain of the present, of course, but sometimes it’s reassuring to read beyond ourselves, and beyond this moment in time, into a future defined by imagination, ingenuity, and wonder.