When I am under stress I turn to various forms of comfort.
I often return to books I have loved and read over and over again. For some, this can be children’s books. Many people return to books like the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings and various others. Books we know and love are safe and predictable in a changing world. I used to have nightmares that the makers of the film version of Lord of the Rings were going to change the story to fit Hollywood better; this is not so silly as it sounds. One of my favourite books is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman; the film version was an utter travesty.
Some books I read at times like this are not fiction. I read Lark Rise to Candleford, my collection of herbals and even sometimes recipe books. I go back to poetry I haven’t read since I was an undergraduate, and to poetry that has been my constant companion much of my life. These books are part of my soul food collection. They feed my soul, to stop it starving. Other soul food books are ones that come my way from time to time and I rarely read again; they are the ones that spark thought and meditation and sometimes anger and upset. But the iron ration soul food books are the ones that are falling apart.
I also like mind candy. I like candy floss and seaside rock from time to time; and so my tastes in books and other entertainment can seem banal. I like a good “Boys’ Book”: you know the kind, the rollicking adventure with cardboard characters, high octane action, and implausible but compelling plot. Basically, beach reads for those who hate chick lit. They’re light and unsatisfying and after a few they all seem the same. But like candy floss, they don’t fill you up and they taste nice for a while. I wouldn’t recommend a diet of them; they don’t feed anything deeper and they rot your mental teeth.
Comfort eating is a harder one to describe; sometimes it’s books you have read before but usually it’s books by authors you like but haven’t read. I have read about half of all Dickens; but not all. Like Shakespeare, Dickens’ stories have become a part of national identity and have a comforting predictability running through. Jane Austen novels are comfort food too, though they stray into soul food too. You’ll know comfort books by their solidity; often great chunks of literature, swimming with a rich gravy of pithy wisdom, and laced with just enough spice to tempt a tired palate.
I have a collection of books that I go back to and when they wear out, I buy another copy. I don’t put them all on the same shelves or even in the same room. They are different genres, different eras, different needs, but I know where they are. I recently misplaced my copy of TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets and I’m still mildly anxious about where it might be; thankfully I have a copy of the complete poems, but that neat little volume was so handy to stick in a bag.
If only I could get a handle on my real eating habits when under stress. When I am depressed, I eat for comfort, but when I am stressed enough, I stop eating for days. There doesn’t seem to be a middle way. And since I am usually either stressed or depressed, my body doesn’t quite know which way is up sometimes.
There has to be a better way. Maybe I should start “eating” books more…