Books have always defined me. When I was a kid, the local library had to set a limit on the number of books I was allowed to check out at one time. The limit was set by one incredulous librarian who had never encountered me before, and arbitrarily set the limit of books I could take out to 34. I remember her even more incredulous look when I was back in just over two weeks, all 34 read and ready to be returned. A good vacation was one where I could get through at least a book a day. I often walked home from school with a book in front of my face. When I started having problems sleeping at a very young age, my mother always told me that it was OK to stay awake, as long as I stayed in my bed, and so I would often read through the night. Beloved books were often re-read, countless times.
And I read anything and everything, even if I didn't understand it. I read Jane Eyre in Grade Three. At that age, I thought it was purely a horror novel due to the scary room Jane's aunt locks her in, the terrible atmosphere at Lowood School, and the crazy wife locked in the attic - only subsequent re-reads as an adult allowed me to see the powerful romance between Jane and Rochester as the driving force of that novel. Anything by L.M. Montgomery was a particular favourite of mine, although I much preferred the aspiring writer, Emily Starr, to Anne Shirley. I read every popular murder mystery and thriller my parents read: Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Sidney Sheldon, Nelson De Mille. Nothing was off-limits from their bookshelves. If you asked me what my favourite book was at age 11, I would have told you it was Gone With the Wind, and meant it. As I entered my "teen" years, I added romances: Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, The Judiths (Krantz and McNaught) and the very disturbing catalogue of V.C. Andrews to my repertoire. At the relatively late age of 15, I discovered Jane Austen and life has never been the same.
Given the prominence of books in my life, there was never any question that I would study literature. All through my English degree, I spent my off-hours working in an antique bookstore. I was never not talking about, thinking about, or reading, books. Books are what I know best of all. I still don't know what possessed me to leave the English department after completing my undergraduate degree, to push off to the very unknown world of law (well, I do know what possessed me, and it wasn't a very good reason - but that's another post for another time), because I loved studying English. The language of literature - of novels, poetry, drama - was, and is, one that I speak fluently. I know, inherently, in my soul, the magic of language.
However, somewhere during and after my studies, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and during this past decade of building my law career, my relationship with books subtly changed. Not only was I reading so much for work that I had little time to read for pleasure, but, I became a huge snob about it. As a member of the esteemed Faculty of English, I couldn't read Danielle Steel, for goodness sake, and these books went out the door to be surreptitiously dumped in the nearest charity drop-off bin. For a good chunk of time, I only read biographies and non-fiction, and could only stomach a novel if it was "acclaimed" - if it wasn't on an awards long or short list, or mentioned breathlessly on CBC Radio as a must-read, I wouldn't touch it. I would privately sneer at Sophie Kinsella or JoJo Moyes books that well-meaning loved ones had bought me as gifts. How I chose what I read was less about whether I thought I would enjoy it, and more about whether I thought I was *supposed* to enjoy it, whether it was something my professors would read, or, worse, what it said about me as a person to have that book on my shelf. My pleasure reading intake tapered dramatically, as my GoodReads list of books read helpfully, and publicly, illustrates.
This fall, I started looking at the online books offered by my library. I loved that I didn't have to try and schedule a library visit to find books to read. I could browse the catalogue and download something to my iPad whenever the mood struck. Before I went home to Victoria for the holidays, I downloaded a book by an author I'd never heard of, Jenny Colgan, that I thought looked like fun. It didn't look like it was going to win any awards, but it didn't have a cotton-candy pink cover with a high heel on it, either. Because it was free, downloaded on a whim (and, OK, I admit, it could be read in secret on my iPad) my usual concerns about whether it was "literary" or "noteworthy" didn't seem as pressing.
The book was called The Bookshop on the Corner. The premise involves a heroine who has been made redundant at her job at a local library in Birmingham in the UK, so she buys a bus that she turns into a travelling bookstore, and moves to a tiny village in Scotland, where she of course finds love with a hunky farmer and her bookstore is a dazzling success. I found Colgan's writing witty, charming and romantic without being saccharine. I devoured it in a night, relegated to the air mattress in the den at my brother's house. I instantly wanted to read more. Up next: her series (yes, there was more than one!) about a London woman who is fired from her job in marketing and starts a successful cupcake bakery (and of course finds love with the local banker who gave her her small business loan). Then it was onto the series about the London lawyer who leaves behind her job in a corporate firm to return home to her Scottish Isles home to run a bakeshop with her cheese-making brother, and the series about the woman whose design business with her boyfriend goes bankrupt, so she moves to Cornwall to start a bakery and live in a lighthouse with a pet puffin (and has a romance with the local beekeeper). In about a three week period, I read every rom-com novel Jenny Colgan had ever written, and tweeted her to ask when her next book was coming out. I also took to Indigo and Amazon to do the "If you liked Jenny Colgan, you'll love X/People also search for" searches, to find authors who might write similar kind of stuff. At my local used bookstore (which also serves coffee, because THEY KNOW), I asked for Jenny Colgan books, and was directed to Jill Mansell, Emily Giffin, and Cecila Ahern. I dove into some YA greats, and re-read childhood favourites I've had on my shelf forever. Since January, I have enthusiastically, unashamedly, had my nose in a book 24/7, and I love it.
I am enjoying reading again, in a way I haven't in years, and it's because I'm reading things I enjoy, rather than things I think I ought to enjoy. I've discovered a whole Twitterverse of other people, including both authors and readers, who enjoy this type of writing, and I enthusiastically bookmark recommendations from favourites. In March, the author Jasmine Guillory (whose book The Wedding Date, a romcom about a couple who meet cute in an elevator in San Francisco is delightful - and if you don't believe me, Roxane Gay did the blurb) asked Twitter for recommendations for "soothing books" and I have been methodically working my way through the list of romances, mysteries and YA novels that other people subsequently recommended. I am yet to be disappointed. Reading is a comfort again, in a way that is hasn't been in a long, long, time.
I am using the words "comfort" and "comfort reads" deliberately to describe these books I am now in love with. I only want to categorize a book based on the feeling it gives me, rather than on a preconceived notion of who the audience of the book should be. Using the sneeringly misogynist term "chicklit," or the oft-used "trashy romance", really means making pre-judgments on an entire genre's worth by limiting its audience. To dismiss YA novels as only for children means to miss out on some wonderful stories that adults could learn a thing or two from. To say that rom-com or mystery or YA books are not literary, or well-written, is ignorant and untrue. There is some masterful writing done in these genres. There is also terrible writing done in these genres, but there is terrible writing done in Canlit or more high-brow fiction - I know because I've slogged through a lot of it.
What these "comfort read" books do for me, which my previous reading habits did not, is to invite me to escape a little from my real life. I've always fantasized about quitting law, to start a decorating business, or a clothing boutique, to become a novelist or run my own bookshop, and in reading these books, I can live that life, just for a few hours. It always turns out happily in the end, there's no worry about paying car payments and mortgages, and there's always love. The prose isn't too challenging, nor is the plot hard to follow, so I can turn my exhausted brain off for an hour or two after a long day at work and just enjoy the story. Why this had any less merit to my former self than a Giller Prize nominated novel, I don't know.
I'm not trying to say that I no longer enjoy more literary, prize-winning novels. I still can, and do, read these. I've been slowly making my way through the latest Giller Prize shortlist, and this year's Canada Reads nominees. But I also know when a book is too challenging for my current state of being, and I also don't feel bad putting down a book that I'm finding it difficult to get through, to turn to something I might enjoy a little more.
This rediscovered love of comfort reads makes me wonder how we determine the literary merit of a book to begin with. I know my English student self would say that it's about the craft that has gone into the work (although that somehow implies there's no craft in rom-com or YA, which is patently false). That it's about hearing stories that urgently need to be told, that might not have happy endings but that hold up a mirror to society and make us question ourselves. But my late thirties, world-weary lawyer self would reply that right now I can't contemplate re-reading The Handmaid's Tale without having a panic attack about how close it is to real life, that I am all too aware of the horrors of society to need it spelled out in the latest post-apocalyptic bestseller. That reading a book about a woman baking bread while chatting to her pet puffin named Neil seems like it would be relaxing, something to be done perhaps while having a glass of wine (or whisky).
Maybe to have merit a book just needs to make you feel...something. And right now, what I want to feel is happy, so I welcome the comfort read with arms (and eyes) wide open. There will be no more book snobbery from me. My comfort reads will take up equal space next to the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize winners, and I will read them with the covers out, loud and proud.