Comfort Reads: What to Read in Troubling Times

In a congratulatory letter to the newly-opened public library in Troy, MI, American writer E.B. White wrote:

“A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people – people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

White was and is right. Books take us places. Books bring us comfort and peace. Books connect us.

Like most bibliophiles, I turn to books in times of crisis– be it a personal, communal, or a global one. In light of recent developments on COVID-19, my university transitioned into remote teaching two weeks ago. And I, once again, have sought solace in the world of literature.

While I believe that the world will get through this crisis, this doesn’t change the fact that we all are going through stressful, worrying times. Since I received the latest update from my university about switching to online classes for the rest of the semester, my level of anxiety has been high. So many questions. So much uncertainty. You know how it goes. So, I’ve found myself browsing my bookshelf and bookstores online to find a comfort read, a book that will help me escape the confines of the recent global crisis.

And I’ve come up with a list of books which vary in genre, form, and content. I wanted to share my list here for those who are taking refuge in books right now. If it is particularly difficult to focus on anything and read at the moment, you are not alone. Down below, I have some books that are short and sweet in case you’d like to try easing into it.

Here are six books that can bring you comfort and ease during troubling times:

1- Tanaïs (Tanwi Nandini Islam), Bright Lines (2015)

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

Set in the summer of 2003 in New York (and in the winter of 2004 in Bangladesh), Tanaïs‘s debut Bright Lines is a coming-of-age story that brings together multi-faceted, fully fleshed-out characters: Maya, Charu Saleem, and her cousin Ella Saleem who was orphaned during the Indo-Pakistani War of ‘71.

The novel charts Ella, Charu, and Maya’s inner awakening, as they spend the summer before college on a quest towards self-realization. In the face of intersecting dilemmas of migration, belonging, and home, the characters learn to negotiate their diasporic identity, religious morality, and heteronormative expectations around sexuality and gender.

The New York based author Tanaïs breaks new ground by placing queerness at the heart of Muslim diasporic experience. After I finished reading Bright Lines in two days, I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Tanaïs, have you been all my life?

This novel is witty, bright, and inspirational. Here are some of my favorite lines from Bright Lines:

“Charu aligned herself with outsiders, with fringe dwellers. She accepted the weird, the freakish, the perverse, the gothic, and the queer. She loved people different from her.”

“Ella watched Maya’s skin tinged golden in the sunlight […] She had an Arabic tattoo etched on her left rib.

‘What’s your tattoo say?’

‘The hour has come near/ the moon is split in two/ they see a miracle/ they turn away and say/ it is passing magic. Lines from Surah al-Qamar.’

‘I thought Muslims weren’t allowed to get tattoos.’

‘Can’t think of anything more godly than tattooing God’s words on myself, said Maya’ “

“They rode behind Maya, who had made trips to the beach before. Her hijab sailed behind her like a kite, as if she might levitate.”

2-Lorrie Moore, Collected Stories (2020)

Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore

If Lorrie Moore is a short story superstar, (which, we all know, she is), this compilation is her greatest hits collection.

In this volume, you will find forty stories from Self-Help (1985), Like Life (1990), Birds of America (1998), and Bark (2014), as well as three different stories excerpted from her novels. 

Moore’s stories are raw and real. They reflect the complex realities of life–romantic relationships, friendships, marriages, parenthood, and more. I’ve been a fan of Moore’s writing since my composition teacher in college (many, many years ago) introduced me to her enchanting novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994). I was and still am infatuated with the way in which Moore explores the comic and tragic aspects of life through wit, humor, and compassion. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Moore’s various works that showcase her brilliance:

“Usually she ordered a cup of coffee and a cup of tea, as well as a brownie, propping up her sadness with chocolate and caffeine so that it became an anxiety.”

Like-Life (1990)

“There were moments bristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life and went, “What?” Or worse, feeling interrupted and tired, “Wha—?” 

Birds of America (1998)

“Basically, I realized I was living in that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity. It’s when you don’t know anything, not even as much as you did when you were younger, and you don’t even have a philosophy about all the things you don’t know, the way you did when you were twenty or would again when you were thirty-eight.” 

Anagrams (1986)

3- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (2009)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s love letter to Paris offers a glimpse into Parisian culture in the 1920s and the position of expat writers within it.

I read A Moveable Feast when I was visiting Paris during my backpacking trip to Europe. This may sound cheesy, I know, but it did feel like I was traveling with Hemingway himself.

Hemingway takes you to the apartment he shared with his first wife Hadley in the Latin Quarter; his favorite coffee shops on Montparnasse and the rooftop bars that he frequented with his writer friends introduce you to the young members of the Lost Generation.

Hemingway's memoir of Paris was first published posthumously in 1964; the restored edition is exciting in that includes the original manuscript.

Here are some of my favorite lines from A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (2009):

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” 

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” 

37 Comments

  1. Loorie Moore is the queen of short stories! I absolutely love her. Several of the other books I hadn’t heard of before though, so thanks for these thoughtful recommendations. And thanks for following my blog! – Carly

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    1. Yes, she is! Her novels are even better in that they take longer to finish 🙂 Thanks for your comment, Carly! Look forward to reading more of your posts- Neri

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      1. Hi, I’m glad you got to order the book–it is quite good. Also, thanks for following me! -Neri

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  2. Thanks for the reading recommendations. Very handy in this time when we have a bit more dedication to reading. : ) Say, I really liked your Istanbul post. Would you mind opening up the comments? I find that WordPress has us close the comments quickly, but I’ve changed my setting to allow comments to continue. Your choice : ) Rebecca

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    1. Hi, Rebecca! Thanks for your lovely words, and also for letting me know about the comments. I had no idea that they were closed?! Will open them up. 🙂 -Neri

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  3. My initial reaction to cope with the stresses of COVID-19, was to watch the films which represented Nicholas Cage’s more questionable career choices. However, as cathartic as it is to watch Nic relax by eating jelly beans from a martini glass whilst watching monkeys practice kung-fu (bonus points for guessing which film this scene appears in) or dress up as a giant grizzly bear to interrupt a ritual child burning (double bonus points for this) I have been using literature as a way for me to gain perspective on my situation by reading books which focus on displaced people, whether it be Moorish slaves in 16th century America or illegal immigrants in 20th century Britain. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to read tragic books, I feel it has allowed me to appreciate all of the privileges I enjoy and to focus on what is truly important and makes me happy (apparently COVID lockdowns are the perfect excuse for me to become a social recluse and lock myself in a room with books and terrible movies) and appreciate that the temporary inconveniences I am facing are nothing in comparison to what so many people are facing around the world.

    That being said, apart from Nicholas Cage movies and depressing fiction, my recommendations would be:

    Chekhov’s Short Stories: The most perfect description I have for Chekhov is one form Nabokov of them being “Sad books for humorous people”
    Cold Comfort Farm: Riotously funny and irreverent.
    In Search of Lost Time: If the lockdown extends to beyond six months, you may just finish this before it ends.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations. See, my dissertation was on diaspora and displacement, and I’m welcoming a much needed break from sad, tragic books. This for me means lots of rom-coms and goofy films and maybe one or two Nic Cage movies, haha.

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      1. You should try combining both rom-coms and Nicholas Cage by watching ‘Moonstruck’. It manages to combine the wonderfully hammy acting of both Nicholas Cage AND Cher with bread machine induced dismemberment and random Mrs Havershamesque airplane based curses.

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    1. Hi, same here! Thanks for your lovely comment. Books are the best 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your poetry! -Neri

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  4. Hi Neri: Thank you for visiting Atkins Bookshelf and for following. Bookshelf is written for people like you who are lifelong learners, seek the comfort and wisdom of literature, and naturally love books. If there is a silverlining to the pandemic it is that people discover, or rediscover literature, that has been weaving some of the same threads in the tapestry of life for centuries: that as humans we are all connected, and that we are interdependent. Alas, our survival today depends on it. Having built a personal library of more than 8,000 books over the decades has created a wellspring of inspiration for my life as well as for my blog. This purpose is even more critical during the shelter-in-place era, where are voices need to be shared to help one another survive. In the words of William Faulkner: “It is [the writer’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” I hope you have a chance to explore the more than 1,600 posts about literature and the fascinating English language during the quarantine. As a student of literature, I am sure you will really enjoy most of them. Cheers. Alex

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  5. Thank you for sharing these reads and for following my blog. I love it when people share their favourite books for comfort, mood changers, literary nourishment.
    I’m getting so much from my slow reading of Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming right now, a chapter a day, I may have to return to the beginning and read it again.

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    1. Thanks, Claire. It’s interesting how my literary “cravings” shift depending on the context. You know, Courageous Dreaming has been on my list for a long time, maybe this is a good time to finally read it. What do you think of it? -Neri

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      1. I’ve had it on my shelf a long time too, and now I can’t believe I waited so long, but maybe that’s because it’s totally the right thing for now. Have to read his book Wisdom of the Earthkeepers? That was great too. Courageous Dreaming I only have one chapter left and feeling a little bereft at that. I’ve written pencil notes all through it. Do pick it up, perfect for now.

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  6. Such a lovely quote by E. B. White, who has been a favorite author of mine since I was 8. You have mentioned a lovely collection, particularly A Moveable Feast. I also find great refuge in the Bible. Thank you for visiting me today!

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