Shelf Awareness: Comfort, joy and connecting through stories

Comfort and joy.

This time of year, we hear these words a lot. I’m writing this today with hopes that we can find some comfort, joy and connection together through stories. When we partake in stories together, even when physically distanced, we can make a connection. Right now I suspect that we are all craving more meaningful and positive connection with each other, and one of the ways we can strengthen our ties to each other can be through reading.

Lately I have been having some difficulty reading for long periods of time or books with heavier subject matter. There is so much darkness in the physical world that sometimes I just want to escape into a more predictable or manageable world. Sometimes we think of these as our “guilty pleasures,” or that reading fiction is frivolous or impractical. However, we don’t need to impose guilt on ourselves for reading whichever stories give us some comfort or inspiration, especially during these dark winter months in one of the most chaotic times in recent memory.

To me, the holiday season is about reminding ourselves of the light that is tucked away just beyond the dark horizon or buried deep within all of us that just needs to be unearthed. The good news is there is also emerging evidence suggesting there is a practical benefit to our “guilty pleasure” reading.

A recent study suggests that reading fiction is not only enjoyable, but also can have benefits for our social awareness. When we read a narrative from another person’s point of view, even a fictional character, we are developing skills for imagining ourselves in another’s shoes and practicing empathy for others. Fictional worlds can help us to formulate a clearer picture of our hopes and dreams, as well as help us explore our anxieties and fears about the real world to find ways to cope.

Of course, what constitutes a comfort read is subject to our own individual definition. For some it may be escaping to an idyllic small town to solve a crime with a ragtag group of friends in a cozy mystery, others may prefer to be swept away by a heart-melting romance. Or you may enjoy riding along in the cosmic battle of a space opera set in a distant yet relatable fantasy world. I whole-heartedly believe that it just takes the right story, for the right person, at the right time.

When people tell me they don’t like reading, I see it as a fun puzzle I get to solve to find the book that is just the right fit for them. At the library, I see people — young and old — who think they aren’t readers come alive when they find the perfect story that connects with them. It is an exhilarating feeling all around — for those experiencing it and those who get to see it happen for another person. It’s a rush of excitement and sense of serenity occurring simultaneously. The proverbial light bulb over our heads flickers on and we find a moment of clarity among the chaos.

Through the years though, I have realized that sometimes it’s simply not the right time for me to read a certain book on my list. I will allow myself to put a book down if I’m just not drawn into it by 100 pages. I try to read as widely as I can but I also struggle with distraction, so rather than becoming frustrated and resentful toward a book (or heaven forbid, toward reading in general!), I will put it down and give myself some grace.

Sometimes I will return to it later to give it another chance and will find more inspiration from it at another time in my life. I just finished reading a book I tried to read over a decade ago. When I had tried to read it in my early 20s, I got no spark from it whatsoever, but this time around it completely turned my brain on its head. Life experiences have a way of changing our perspective, and we may relate to a story differently at another point in our journey.

So these days I gravitate mostly toward lighthearted fiction, lighter nonfiction, short stories, picture books, graphic novels and poetry. Anything with a story that will draw me in and hold my attention. Also, I’m a sucker for anything with vivid descriptions of pastoral landscapes. I would love to share the gift of comfort and joy through stories with all of you, so at the end of this column, I am including a list of titles that may help to inspire you on your journey.

This is by no means a comprehensive or “best of” list; just a few titles to help get you started. There are many more to choose from at the library! Give us a call if you would like more suggestions, or peruse some of the resources available on our website. Visit our Staff Picks or Book Reviews pages, and you can sign up for Personalized Picks to receive reading suggestions selected by library staff just for you!

You can get all of the titles on this list free with your library card, I have linked each one to our library catalog where you can find information on availability and place the items on hold using your library card. Or, look for a different title using the search bar at the top of the catalog page. You can then receive the items by signing up for home delivery service or choose to pick the item up at one of our branches during contactless pick-up hours. Right now you can retrieve arrived holds at the Philomath branch every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Visit our website or follow us on Facebook for updates.

One of the things I miss the most right now is being able to share books with our youngest community members in person at the library. Seeing their faces light up when they feel the pure joy of an aha! moment while reading, singing or playing was one of the brightest times of my life. Right now families can share stories with me and other librarians through our Stay at Home Storytime videos, weekly Facebook Live storytimes Tuesday mornings at 10:30, or call 541-766-6568 to listen to a story anytime with our Telephone Tales program. Adults can also connect with fellow community members through the power of stories by joining one of our monthly virtual book clubs or viewing Random Reviews.

So, as I come to a close my question for you is — what are your comfort reads? Which stories, books, movies, TV shows, audiobooks or albums are your go-to’s that give you comfort during trying times? Feel free to email me with titles you would like to share, I always enjoy hearing about what people are watching or listening to.

I hope that this holiday season you get to experience the magic of a story that brings you the gifts of peace, serenity, comfort, joy, light and warmth as we begin a fresh new year together.

General Fiction

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

The Book Charmer by Karen Hawkins

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

Cozy or Gentle Mystery

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie

Romance

How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole

The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

Poetry

The Sun and her Flowers or Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Graphic Novels

Korgi by Christian Slade

Nonfiction

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

A Street Cat Named Bob: and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

James Herriott’s books

Juvenile fiction for all ages

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Picture books for all ages

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

Love by Matt de la Peña

I am a Story by Dan Yaccarino

The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito

Teacup by Rebecca Young

Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel Campoy

(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at 541-929-3016.)

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