Comfort Reading You've Tried Chocolate (Too Fattening), Analysis (Too Expensive) and Gin (Never Again). but Better Than Any of These If You're Feelingwretched Is a Course of Cheering Literature. Hester Lacey Asks Some Readers and Writers for Their Prescriptions

Article excerpt

FALLING IN LOVE with a book is a life-long affair rather than a brief fling; which is one of the philosophies behind Channel 4's forthcoming series, Booked. While the programme will review one new title a week, the guests will also be talking about their favourite volumess. Given that the guest list reads like a Who's Who of the literary world and will include Muriel Spark, Will Self and John Irving, plus the likes of Anthony Minghella and Clare Short, it promises to make passionate viewing. Rather than following publishers' hyping of the Latest Big Thing it will celebrate volumes that are truly cherished.

Meanwhile, Radio Four has spotted the popularity of reading groups and is bringing its own version to the airwaves. Once a month, James Naughtie will host Book Club; after a short interview with the author of that month's book, listeners will be invited to join in the discussion. "We are very excited about it," says Radio Four's Marion Greenwood. "There is a definite commitment to increasing our books coverage. It is absolutely our territory."

There is, of course, more to much-loved titles than mere entertainment. Prozac, paracetamol, a shoulder to cry on, a box of tissues, a friendly ear, a bowl of chicken soup, a glass of wine. Or a book. Which is the more therapeutic? Whether the problem is a broken heart or a broken leg, a dose of flu or sprained self- confidence, books can help make it better. Apart from the obvious cheerer-uppers like Wodehouse and Molesworth, some extremely sad books can also raise the spirits: who can read Jean Rhys without feeling better about their own situation, however dire it may be? "I often like depressing books," says Nigella Lawson. "Good art, even if it's about things that are depressing, is incredibly uplifting. When you are feeling low, what is difficult is being trapped in your own feelings and anxieties; in a book there is some escape." Comfort-reading, says literary agent Felicity Rubinstein, needs to be "an incredibly familiar book, one that has been reread over a period of time at least once a year". She swears by Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (a movie version by Mike Newell, screenplay by Amy Jenkins, is now in production). "It's the story of two sisters who go to live in a ruined castle with their eccentric, difficult father and their stepmother, who used to be an artists' model. It was a huge hit when it was published, and everyone I've passed it on to has found it a hit - it works every time, for absolutely everybody, though I don't know why." Blood, gore, sex and violence are out when it comes to reading for therapy. Instead childhood favourites, classics and the like offer a friendly, comforting voice. Below, we offer half-a-dozen personal recommendations for a course of book therapy. I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith). It's got a kind of magic, if you read it you'll love it. There is a real twist at the end - as in many uplifting books, the end isn't always happy. Jane (Dee Wells). It's about an American woman living in London who has three lovers, a languid aristocrat, a black American civil rights lawyer and a beautiful burglar. She discovers she's pregnant but doesn't know who the father is, and there is another bittersweet ending. The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy). This time it's an American living in Paris, who meets a wonderful man. Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild). In fact, anything by Noel Streatfeild. Like all classics, her books are timeless. All through Streatfeild's books you meet characters you recognise all your life. They often feature people who start out poor and unhappy, but life gets better and better - the have-nots becoming haves makes you think life can get better. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford). Another unhappy ending; Linda, the main character, dies in childbirth, her lover dies in the war. But still immensely therapeutic. Mr Fox (Barbara Comyns). Like several of the other titles I've chosen, sadly out of print, but an incredible writer. …