Comfort food. That’s a pretty common expression that you hear people use to describe a food that makes them feel better. It might evoke memories of a time when you were sick and your mother would make you something special to cheer you up, or it might just be a favourite food.
But whatever the reason, comfort food makes you feel good. It’s the food you eat when you’re depressed, when you need a boost, or just for the sake of feeling good. There’s just something about it that eases whatever troubles you might be experiencing.
I’ve never really had a comfort food; I don’t know why, but it’s just not something that’s ever eased my emotional state. I’m definitely not one of those men whose heart can be won via my stomach. Maybe it’s because I’m the one who does most of the cooking in our house, and I appreciate someone doing the dishes more than any food that’s made for me.
On the other hand it could also be because I have no warm fuzzy feelings about childhood, and nothing is going to evoke nurturing for me. When you have no memories of genuine nurturing, it’s going to damn hard to be reminded of them. Not surprising considering what I lived through as a child, and how I dealt with it for the next 20 years; running away, aided and abetted by any substance that would alter my reality, that instead of searching for comfort in nurturing, I search for comfort in leaving things behind, in escaping.
Food is pretty here and now, and doesn’t allow for much escapism, so I’ve looked to a different media to foster my comfort. Most of my life it’s been books. There have been periods where I’ve stopped reading because I haven’t be able to find an author to fulfill that criterion.
Fortunately for my peace of mind, most of my life has coincided with the emergence of the fantasy genre as a major player in the publishing world. Talk about the perfect escapist reading. Magic, dragons, different worlds, evil wizards, and all those attributes that go into making a fantasy novel are just the ticket for my comfort food of the mind.
In the past few years I have had more need than ever of comfort reading. Ever since the fall of 2001, when I first started going in and out of the emergency ward of the hospital on a regular basis, I haven’t really been very interested in reality. I was living it a little too much to want to read about it.
The first building block in my fantasy rotation (I call the books that I read on a regular basis my rotation, because I will read through them all in order, and if nothing else is published by the time I get to the end of the rotation I will start over again) was that old standard, Tolkien. I’ve probably read The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit twice a year every year for the past 30-some years.
But a person can’t live on hobbits alone, and there are a couple of others that have been old favourites for quite some time. British author Susan Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising sequence, a five-part series about Will Stanton, the youngest of the Old Ones who’s part of the great battle between the Light and the Dark who fight the long battle that’s been fought since the time of Arthur in the British Isles.
Not only are they well-written, intelligent books, but they are wonderful history lessons that date back to ancient times and bring to life many of the mythical creatures out of Great Britain’s long-forgotten history. How many other books can claim to have Herne the Hunter rubbing shoulders with Arthur Pendragon as characters?
Recent years have proven a bounty for people like me who are looking to escape out of their reality. Needless to say, so much of it is dross, but there are also some clear winners: Steven Erikson and his Malazon Book Of The Fallen sequence, James Barclay and his books about the Raven, and his new sequence Ascendants of Esotrea, R. Scott Baker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, and Ashok Banker’s retelling of the 3000-year-old epic tale The Ramayana.
Each one of these authors has created a world where I can wander through and be amazed by the creatures, beings, and magic that inhabit their worlds. When your own world’s boundaries are reduced by illness and pain, living vicariously through the pen of an author is sometimes your only recourse and a wonderful relief.
The characters all feel like friends after a while, so that even though you end up reading the same stories over and over again, it doesn’t matter because you are getting an opportunity to visit with close friends. You know their quirks and idiosyncrasies as well as your own after a while, which only serves to increase the feelings of comfort and familiarity.
There’s a rather glaring omission from that list above, but that’s not because I don’t feel like it belongs in this category of comfort books, but with due respect to the above authors, they have become my standard for comfort books. Maybe because it was the timing in which they came into my life that I’m of this opinion, but to my mind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is without a doubt the finest comfort food my mind has ever found.
In May of 2002, in an attempt to solve my chronic pain condition, I had some fairly major surgery done; the lower right side of my colon, including the cecum and a good chunk of the ascending colon were removed. After a week in the hospital, I was released on a Tuesday.
By Friday of that week, I was in emergency, in so much pain that I couldn’t straighten. I had developed an abscess and had to be kept in the hospital an additional three weeks being pumped full of antibiotics and morphine. Needless to say, by the time I got out of the hospital I was feeling a little beat up.
On my first full day out of the hospital, my second day home, my older brother and sister in-law came down from Ottawa for a visit. They brought me the first book in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (for some reason it was changed to Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States and translated into American idioms) as a get-well present. I read it three times in the first week I owned it.
It’s not like its great literature, or even the best-written book in the world, but there is something about the series that appeals on a comfort level. Each time I open the books it feels like I’m visiting with old and dear friends. I’m always surprised that they’re doing the same things they were doing the last time I read about them, because I’m almost not reading them as stories but visiting the people in the books.
Yesterday was turning into a bad day for my pain condition, and I just felt the urge to pick up the books and start reading them again. I had just finished reading Ashok Banker’s Ramayana and was casting around for something else to read. I tried a few others and none of them were doing the trick.
As soon as I had opened the first page of Philosopher’s Stone I knew I had made the right choice. I was back among familiar faces listening to their voices as if I had known them all my life. Nothing lifts the spirits quite so much a visiting with friends you can count on.
I’ve never understood the saying “familiarity breeds contempt”, or maybe it all depends on what you are being familiar with. For me, in the circumstances described in the article above, familiarity brings joy and relief. As others have comfort for the stomach, I have comfort for my head.
No matter how you look at it, in this day and age, anything any of us can draw comfort from is something to be treasured. For me it’s my books because they free my mind to travel to places where I can find relief from my own reality. Sometimes they’re better relief than any analgesic a doctor can prescribe.