During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s natural to feel stressed, anxious or lonely. Whether you’re self-isolating, working from home or simply need a break from all the headlines, escape the world for a while with one of these comforting reads – as chosen by writers, booksellers and charity volunteers.
Question: is there anything more comforting than reading a book?
In moments of loneliness, isolation, doubt, or anxiety, opening a book can be a welcome escape into another world. You can leave whatever’s worrying you behind and take a step into another, better universe.
So it’s no surprise that a major report from UK charity The Reading Agency and think tank Demos found a link between reading and loneliness, showing that reading books can reduce feelings of isolation for those aged 18-64.
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“Reading is an incredibly powerful tool for helping us to feel less lonely, and can provide us with a great source of comfort,” Sue Wilkinson, chief executive of The Reading Agency, tells Stylist.
“Reading is often perceived as a ‘solitary’ activity, but there is evidence to show that it can help alleviate feelings of loneliness. For many people joining a reading group acts as a conversation starter between individuals, and ultimately helps to develop and nurture relationships with others.”
With the UK currently in the grip of a “loneliness epidemic”, which certainly isn’t helped by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, reading could be an accessible solution to feelings of isolation.
With this in mind, Stylist asked 27 women to recommend their ultimate comfort reads, with the answers ranging from childhood favourites to classic bestsellers.
Featuring top picks from authors including Poorna Bell, Nikita Gill and Ali Land, as well as journalists, booksellers and charity volunteers, think of this as your go-to reading list for whenever you need a moment of comfort.
The Lido by Libby Page
Chosen by: Hollie Richardson, digital writer at stylist.co.uk
“I’m a millennial woman who works in the media and lives in London. I’m also the proud owner of a membership card for London Fields Lido. So, of course I totally related to twenty-something journalist Kate Matthews in Libby Page’s The Lido. It explores the loneliness of moving to a big city and the frustration of finding your feet in those first jobs. But it also proves how easily doing something as simple as joining the local lido can open you up to a whole new world that was on your doorstep the whole time.
“The friendship that Kate forms with Rosemary Peterson’s character – an elderly woman who often doesn’t recognise the ever-changing neighbourhood she grew up in around her – also inspired me to get chatting to the people I meet in all areas of my life. Because you never know what they’re going through, or what incredible stories of their own they have to tell.”
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There by Cheryl Strayed
Chosen by: Rhiannon Newson, Samaritans volunteer
“A friend gave Tiny Beautiful Things to me when I was going through a difficult time and it was really comforting. Cheryl’s advice is so warming. She makes you realise that lots of people struggle with various different things in life and that you are never alone.”
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Chosen by: Poorna Bell, journalist and author of Chase The Rainbow
“I’ve re-read this book countless times – it is the equivalent of a cosy light in the window welcoming me in. It covers with such pathos the stories of two women, and weaves in bereavement and love, but what I savour most is its hopeful ending.”
1001 Arabian Nights by Anonymous
Chosen by: Nikita Gill, poet and author of Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul
“I find 1001 Arabian Nights incredibly comforting. A glittering treasure trove of tales from far away yet familiar lands, adventure, beauty and chaos, this book never fails to remind me of the beauty in adversity and helps me lose my sense of loneliness and fills me with the urge to create.”
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz
Chosen by: Anna Hart, travel writer and author of Departures: A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure At a Time
“This book, written in 1979, is the most fearless thing on my bookshelf. I often travel with it when I’m on a solo adventure, because if I ever need a fix of spirit, humour, honesty and general badassery, a couple of pages will sort me out.”
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Chosen by: Kayleigh Dray, editor-at-large of stylist.co.uk
“I know it’s a cliche, but is there anything more inspiring than this story about a little girl who – despite being lonely, despite being bullied, despite being ‘different’ from those around her – finds the power within to rescue herself? I think not.”
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice
Chosen by: Ali Land, author of Good Me Bad Me
“This uplifting, raw memoir is packed full of love, comfort and wisdom. Journey deep into the beating heart of Ruth’s tribe - her husband who has motor neurone disease, and their five children; laugh with the members of ‘The Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club’ whose friendships prop Ruth up on darker days; and be reminded why nature is one of the most powerful healers there is. A truly life-affirming book.”
Look At Me By Anita Brookner
Chosen by: Daisy Buchanan, journalist and author of How to Be a Grown-Up
“When I was in my teens and feeling almost constantly alone, isolated and hormonal, I discovered Anita Brookner’s novel Look At Me, and the story of Frances, a young woman who wants to write but yearns for glamour and a connection with the world around her. She makes exciting friends, Nick and Alix, who bring her into their circle - but she soon learns that sometimes being in a crowd of the wrong people is the loneliest thing of all.
“The greatest lesson that this book taught me is that feeling lonely is never a failure, and it’s better to wait for your people than to seek out company for its own sake. Brookner’s prose is elegant, dryly witty and startlingly truthful. Being alone with Frances and her thoughts always makes me feel as though it’s OK to be alone in my own too.”
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Chosen by: Francesca Brown, Stylist’s books editor
“I first read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 16 and it’s a book I go back to again and again in times of change or worry as the world of Maycomb with its gossiping spinsters, dusty streets and childhood games is an escape to another time.
“I think what I really like about it is that it’s not altogether a safe one - dreadful racism, violence and small-mindedness abound but the children with their father Atticus find a way through it; it’s comforting to know that life isn’t all sunshine and roses but belief in the goodness of people can see you through.”
The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Chosen by: Sarah Collings, learning and development coordinator at refugee charity Breaking Barriers
“The first time I read The Old Man And The Sea I thought it was really boring, but then my grandma told me to read it again, and I actually wept because it was so beautiful. I think it’s a good choice because it’s a story about being alone and being strong, and about hidden achievements and overcoming challenges that nobody else witnesses.”
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger
Chosen by: Charly Cox, poet and author of She Must Be Mad
“Heartbroken? Franny indulges me. Depressed? Zooey tries to argue me out. Having an existential crisis and would rather avoid reality and find comfort in something less frightening and non-committal like delicious language? Franny. And. Zooey. JD Salinger.”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Chosen by: Sarah Baba, journalist
“My book companion is a relative newcomer, but she’s the kind of ‘friend’ you feel like you’ve known forever, and she’s brought belly laughs, warmth and the odd tear. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was there for me when I was feeling lost. Her ‘this is me’ attitude, and absolute authenticity was just what I needed to hear when I was low in confidence and high on self-criticism. She also showed me that it’s OK to be vulnerable, and we can’t walk round with head-to-toe armour on every day or we’ll never feel the sun on our skin.”
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Chosen by: Sarah Biddlecombe, commissioning editor at stylist.co.uk
“I love this book so much that I own three copies, and I’m constantly pressing one into the hands of people I know – especially if they’re looking for a comfort read. The story follows dumped and heartbroken Ruth as she moves home to look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Despite the bleak storyline it is light and funny, and never fails to make me feel less alone.”
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Chosen by: Abbie Day, publishing executive at The British Library
“Crime fiction might not be an obvious choice for a comforting read but the intrigue of the central puzzle, coupled with Collins’s fabulous characterisation, makes this a great source of escapism for me. Nostalgia definitely plays a part, too, as I first read this book in my teenage years. I’ve revisited The Moonstone so many times that opening it feels akin to checking in with an old friend.”
Once In A House On Fire by Andrea Ashworth
Chosen by: Mary Jane Wiltshire, journalist
“I discovered Once In A House On Fire as a crushingly shy teen and have returned to it year-on-year. It’s an autobiographical story of three sisters growing up in Seventies Britain and plays out in the grey cityscape of Manchester, with a brief interlude in wild, untamed Canada. There’s a lot of sadness in the narrative so it isn’t a comfort read in the obvious sense, but at its core this book is about the resilience of the human spirit. I read it at a time when I desperately wanted a sister and fell in love with Andrea Ashworth’s nuanced depictions of female relationships, which are full of humour and integrity.”
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
Chosen by: Sarah Shaffi, books journalist and managing editor, Penguin.co.uk
“Anne of Green Gables has everything I’m looking for in a comforting book. Its heroine is kind, relatable, funny, and always stands up for herself. It’s got a friendship for the ages in Anne and Diana, a romance to give you the warm fuzzies between Anne and Gilbert, and the kind of found family story that will never leave you. And while there is heartbreak within, it’s a book full of love.”
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
Chosen by: Amy Lababidi, Cancer Research officer
“I read Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton over the summer of 2018 (along with every other woman in her 20s) and absolutely adored it. The way Alderton wrote of her experiences as a young woman, navigating her way through teenage angst, university and working life really resonated with me in a way no book has ever done before.
“One theme that stuck out was the power of female friendships and that provided me with immense comfort, reading first-hand how women can empower and provide support for one another, both in times of difficulty and success. You feel bound to Alderton through shared experiences and there’s something so comforting in knowing you’re not alone in the highs and lows of life.”
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
Chosen by: Natasha Bell, author of Exhibit Alexandra
“This collection of strange, fantastical stories about misfits struggling to cope with the gaps between their lives and their imaginations always comforts me when I feel lonely. Some of the tales are deeply melancholic, but there’s something beautifully hopeful about the tenderness with which July crafts her characters. She draws us into their worlds and tells us that it’s okay to feel however we feel; we are not alone and, truly, no one belongs here more than we do.”
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
“This is hands-down my favourite comfort read. I first fell in love with the book when I was 17 – around the same age as its protagonist, Penelope, a teenager living in the Fifties whose whole life turns technicolour one afternoon when a strange girl at a bus stop invites her to tea. The ensuing story is as cosy and delicious as you’d imagine, in the funny, eccentric tradition of Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith.
“It’s a love story in many respects, but the most romantic part to me has always been the friendship between the two main characters; that kind of giddy, intoxicating bond that forms when you’re on the cusp of adulthood and desperate for life to really start. It reminds me that even if everything seems grey, life can veer off in exciting directions when you least expect it. And to always chat to strangers at bus stops.”
Archangel’s Enigma by Nalini Singh
Chosen by: Dani Dash, journalist
“I go straight to Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Enigma when I’m looking for comfort and feeling particularly lonely. Singh’s story of Naasir, a vampire desperate for the love of someone who’ll accept him, flaws and all, is special to me. Part of the Guild Hunter series, Archangel’s Enigma sees Naasir team up with Andromeda, a warrior scholar and very much the love he’s been searching for.”
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling
Chosen by: Anna Brohan, business development manager at Breaking Barriers
“I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when I need comforting. I know the story really well so it doesn’t need a lot of concentration, it reminds me of my childhood and has all my favourite characters in it. I also like that it is really long and focuses on plot development rather than action and adventure, so I can just chill and learn about the story and feel like a child again.”
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Chosen by: Hannah-Rose Yee, journalist
“Sweetbitter is a novel that perfectly captures the strange, isolating loneliness of having just moved to a new city. Tess, the novel’s 20-something protagonist, muddles her way through nights spent waitressing at an upmarket restaurant in New York and the rest of her time with her hands shoved into her pockets, wondering if she’d made the most terrible mistake.
“There are a few scenes in the book in which Tess, listless and for want of anything – better or otherwise – to do, eats a whole packet of gingernut biscuits for dinner washed down with a single beer. Nothing I’ve ever read has distilled the particular malaise of being in a new place on your own quite like it.”
Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
Chosen by: Hope Bastine, mindfulness and sleep psychology expert
“This is a comforting read that nourished my soul following a loss. The poetic way O’Donohue engages us to look at the beauty in life has a way of pulling you out of your loneliness and reconnecting you to the sense of ‘oneness’.”
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl
Chosen by: Lucy Robson, SEO executive at stylist.co.uk
“Short stories aren’t usually my thing at all – as soon as I get invested in the story and characters, it’s over and I’m not satisfied. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is my exception and returning to it fills me with warmth from the inside. Not only because it’s my favourite book title ever (‘wonderful’ really pulls at my heart strings), the story of Henry particularly speaks to me because he goes on a journey of transformation (from mostly bad to mostly good).
“Like all Roald Dahl stories, it’s weird, wonderful, mystical and fundamentally profound – yet sinister enough to not be too sickly sweet and with a haunting moral message that is hard to shake. Also, because it’s short, it’s easy to go back to again.”
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Chosen by: Helen Cullen, author of The Lost Letters of William Woolf
“A novel that is both tender and powerful, Tin Man is a glorious exploration of friendship and how love can endure even heartbreak. It celebrates a belief that boys and men are capable of beautiful things despite existing in a world that often encourages the opposite and I believe will inspire hope in the loneliest or even the most despairing souls.”
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Chosen by: Millie Milliken, journalist
“This classic story of troubled love set in a bleak and barren moorland doesn’t, on first inspection, scream ‘comforting’. But the world that Emily Bronte creates for protagonists Catherine and Heathcliffe is, I think, the most magically transporting of any work in modern literature. In it you’ll lose track of where you are, the world you live in and the reason you felt lonely in the first place.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Chosen by: Edwina Boyd-Gibbins, account director at Midas PR
“This is my ultimate comfort read. There’s something deeply soothing about revisiting a world and characters you feel you know almost as well as yourself (sometimes better). Yet despite the various TV and film adaptations, and how well-read my own dog-eared two-decade old copy is now, it’s a book that reveals new meanings on each rereading – a significance you didn’t spot before; a joke you glossed over last time but now has you laughing out loud.”
This piece was originally published in November 2018 and has been updated throughout.
Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter