I was a big (flawed, naive, self-righteous, bumbling-but-oh-so-earnest) activist in high school. I feel a lot of tenderness for my seventeen year-old self, despite my misguided ways. Sometimes I cringe when I remember some of what I did with the best intentions and the littlest understanding. But I also remember how much determination and certainty that girl had, how much absurdly optimistic pluck. I carry that baby activist inside me–her mistakes and her resolve.
Thanks to age, experience, books, and a lot of exceptionally smart mentors and friends, I’ve learned a lot since my high school days. I’m still learning how to be an activist; I think I always will be. As I gather my strength for all of the fights ahead–fights for racial justice and immigrant rights and women’s rights and for the planet, fights that have been going on forever but that suddenly have a terrifying new enemy–I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can learn from that angry, starry-eyed teenage version of myself.
Back in those days, I felt this deep compulsion to fix everything, save everything. I thought I had all the answers. I romanticized activism constantly. I wanted to be the ultra-committed activist, the eat-sleep-breathe-the-movement activist. The movies made it look so fun. I quickly learned that in real life it’s impossible to give yourself over to any one thing. I got overwhelmed and tired trying. I mostly gave up.
All these years later, I want to knock that girl gently on the shoulder and tell her to take a long walk and then curl up somewhere and read a really funny novel that has nothing to do with the darkness of the world. Sometimes the world is too much. Whoever you are, whatever fights you’re fighting–it happens to all of us. No human can go and go and go forever.
So here are the books I read to escape and recharge, the books as worn and comfortable as the coziest sweaters, the books that somehow mange to always, always make me laugh. These books are pure and uncomplicated pleasure. They are the books that give me happy relief, for an hour or three, from the spinning of my brain and the muck of the world.
We have a lot of work to do, which means we have a lot of loving of each other to do, and a lot of sharing of meals to do, and a lot of enjoying of books and reveling in the people and moments and places that bring us joy, because those are the things that fuel the fight.
Read Against Trump, Day 3: The Most Comforting of Comfort Books
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings is the heart book of all heart books, my most beloved book, the book that has stayed with me from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, the book I reread every 2-3 years without even consciously deciding to, just because I start to crave it. I put it on this list not because there is something specifically comforting and calming about it (although, let’s be real, there is), but to represent the best kind of all comfort reading: your most beloved favorite. Whatever it is, whether it’s a literary novel or a delightfully trashy romance or the sci-fi series you loved best as a kid–whatever book gives you the warmest fuzzies and reminds you why you love the world, I hope you give yourself permission to read it, over and over again.
The Liquor series, Poppy Z. Brite
The three novels and two novellas that make up the Liquor series are, for me, comfort reading at its pinnacle. The series tells the story of Rickey and G-man, two New Orleans natives and lifelong cooks who have been best friends since childhood and lovers since they were sixteen. In Liquor, tired of a life spent as line cooks for terrible pay, they decide to open their own restaurant, one in which every dish will include some form of alcohol. The rest of the series follows their exploits as chef-owners of one of the most popular new restaurants in New Orleans. These books are fun and lighthearted; there is scandal, gossip, and mystery aplenty. What sets them apart is the familiarity and freshness of Rickey and G-man, two characters whom I will never get tired of reading about. The books are also a love letter to food, and to New Orleans. The love and pride and loyalty that Rickey and G-man have for their city is catching, and the descriptions of food and cooking and kitchens are some of the best around.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley
This is not a tried and true comfort read, like many of the other books on this list. I picked it up a few weeks ago, read it in an afternoon, and could not stop smiling. It’s a beautiful graphic memoir about food and cooking. Whether she’s writing about about harvesting mushrooms and foraging for fruit in rural New York as a kid, the most perfect croissants from a cafe in Venice, or Mexican street candy, Knisley’s love of food and cooking and sharing meals overflows on the page. To me this book felt like a visual and literary manifestation of joy. There was humor and thoughtfulness here as well, but it was Knisley’s contagious joy–whether over a McDonald’s hamburger on a foreign street or her mother’s cookies–that made this book so poignant. Reading it left me feeling warm and well-fed and happy. I think we could all use more books like that.
Harry Potter, read by Jim Dale
I’m new to audiobooks, and so far I’ve discovered that what I like to listen to most are books that I am deeply, deeply familiar with. So far, doing puzzles while listening to Jim Dale read Harry Potter is pretty high up there as far as recharge/refuel comforting reading goes. The range of characters he voices so perfectly and with such unique precision is truly amazing.
The Martian, Andy Weir
Yeah, I know, runaway bestseller and big blockbuster hit, but this book is so, so good. I could read it over and over again. It’s everything I love about block-out-the-world-forget-about-the-nonsense science fiction. It’s impossible to put down. The best thing about page-turners is that they take up all the space in your brain. There’s no room to worry about all the big, important things (and the little, stressful things) in your life and the world when you just need to know what happens next RIGHT NOW. For me, this was a book that took over my brain in the best possible way, and sometimes that’s what you need to get to the next day, the next fight.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel
Per my comments after finishing it for the first time in 2009: “Wonderful. Hilarious. Fantastic.” It’s full of social commentary and radical politics and astute and thoughtful observations about queer culture and American life–and all of that makes it wonderful and smart. But, also–it’s just so funny. I mean, it’s full of heart and warmth and honest, flawed characters struggling with all the things humans struggle with. The strip ran from 1983 to 2008 and covered a lot of history through the intimate lens of the lives of a group of queer friends in almost-Minneapolis. And it is so beautifully funny.
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
As far as comfort series go, this is at the top of my list. Mrs. Madrigal and the hodgepodge of her”logical family” are some of the most comforting of comfort characters around. Maupin blends all of the things that make for the best escapist reading: weird, intriguing mysteries that keep the plot moving, characters it is impossible not to love, and a sense of home and familiarity that welcomes you like an old friend.
One thing that I love about Tales of the City is the fact that Maupin kept writing them. This could have been a series about the 80’s in San Francisco, but Maupin refused to let his characters die. After the sixth book came out in 1989, he wrote three more between 2007-2014. All of the books are delightful, but there is something especially wonderful about being able to see these characters as they exist in the world of today–how they’ve changed and grown and made mistakes, but mostly how they’ve survived. There is a lot of joy and hope–and plain old escapist fun–in these pages.
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
Tipping the Velvet has its moments of darkness, but the ending–and the overall feeling of the thing–is so happy and hopeful and triumphant that it counts as high-quality comfort reading to me, despite the twisting and sometimes heartbreaking path it takes to get to its happy ending. All of Sarah Waters’ work is fantastic, but this one is, without a doubt, my favorite. An epic, sprawling, adventure of a lesbian love story set in Victorian London, it’s funny and gaudy and over-the-top at times. It’s also so heartwarming that it’s basically like reading melted butter (in the best way possible), and feminist as shit.
I have to admit that I’ve re-watched the mini series more often than I’ve reread the book. The mini series is very, very good.
The Weetzie Bat Series, Francesca Lia Block
If a more beautiful ode to queer family has ever been written, I have yet to find it. The shimmering, glittery, brightly-colored world of Weetzie Bat and her found family is one of my favorite fictional universes to fall into when the real world is too dark and too heavy. Block’s magical version of LA is full of myth and chaos; the creativity of her vision is fresh and enchanting. But the best thing about these stories is the explosive love her characters have for each other, and the fierceness with which they celebrate and protect that love–and their right to name it–no matter what anyone else thinks or does. I fell in love with the Weetzie Bat books when I was a teenager, but I have revisited them again and again, finding strength and comfort in the celebration of queer love and family that Block brings to life on the page.
This trilogy by Tahitian author Celestine Vaite is breezy beach reading at its best. The books concern the spunky and wonderful Materena, her daughter, and the rest of their family. The books are warm and glowing and funny, full of heart and joy. There is humor and wisdom and family drama, but most of all these stories are a simple, delectable pleasure to read, like sitting on a beach with your best pals, warm sun on your back and the breeze in your hair.