Re-reading some old favourites showed Sophie White just how much solace can be found in the familiar
Are you a re-reader? A re-watcher? A re-anythinger? I have never been, until now. I just never really got why you would re-visit a book or film when there are so many out there, so many that we will never have the time to watch or read them all before we die. There is, of course, the odd exceptions. I faithfully watch Christmas movies year after year and yes, I include Mean Girls in the festive films bracket because otherwise my claim to not be a re-watcher would be invalid.
So. It's been a tough year.
At the start of the summer, my dad died after a long and agonising illness and this marked the beginning of this new passion for comfort reading.
After his death, I couldn't stand to be on my phone with the constant pinging notifications of other people's curated happiness and ice creams and summmertime and easy living.
I needed something that would absorb me wholly and stop me from thinking my endlessly looping, self-loathing and self-pitying thoughts – why do we call it Grief? We should surely just call it Guilt? I needed to fill my hurting head with images of something other than suffering and cold, hard, colder than cold death. Tell me stories please.
This summer, I moved into my own bedroom away from my husband for a lot of reasons, one being that my middle-of-the-night reading habit wasn't compatible with a person living in the real world of early starts, and work and kids. He was patient as I took to the couch in my office. We said goodnight that first night and I closed the door on all the demands of a happy life: babies and work and laundry and what's for dinners and Netflix and weekend plans. I lay down on the couch and scanned the room. Reading is a big part of my work. I review books, I interview authors. Stacked on my desk were a dozen proof-copies of books by brilliant new authors. On the shelves lining the walls were the books, the stories that make up my own personal history. All the Harry Potters, all the Tales of the City, everything by Claire Messud, lots by Anita Shreve. All that was missing was the complete works of R.L. Stine (probably at my mum's house).
This is the summer, I found myself returning to the books that had given me pleasure in the past, I suppose because it was a distraction and less taxing than reading new books. I needed the familiar, a promise of nothing bad happening that I was unprepared for, I needed to know that whatever book I gave my time to wouldn't betray me with surprises, in that pesky way that real life has. As I embarked on each old faithful, a Proustian journey unfolded transporting me to the time in my life when I had first read the book.
Perhaps because I myself was completely beside myself, first I picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and got lost again just as I did three years ago when I first read Karen Joy Fowler's novel of a family's unusual and engrossing disintegration.
I read Donna Tartt's the Secret History and found myself once more an apathetic classics student in 6th Year, dodging my leaving cert revision with the beguiling world of Hampden College and homicidal classics students. Tartt, herself has said of reading:
"It's hard to find that readerly experience as an adult where you disappear inside a book and the book becomes your whole world and you don't hear your mother calling and you're just galloping through the pages... to really be somewhere else, to have an alternate life."
I returned to What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt which is beautifully written and weaves a chilling murder into a doomed family.
Is a trend emerging? Murder and mayhem but perhaps after witnessing death this is what we crave? Next, I revisited The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides another doomed affair, this time between recent college graduates waspish Madeleine and manic depressive, Leonard.
I noticed that my literary refuges have a few things in common. They are bloody brilliant books. They are rich worlds in which to lose yourself. And I think perhaps most crucially, I read each of them for the first time before my dad became ill. It's a form of time-travel for the life-weary.
Like comfort eating, comfort books can offer us a respite from the hellstorm that attends all our lives at some point or another, a little wormhole that might deliver us momentarily from whatever sh*t is currently going down. While pondering whether comfort reading might ultimately be a lazy pursuit, a bit of a cop out, I came across this quote from the original madeleine-muncher himself:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Comfort reading has taught me that we're probably never done with the books we love. Every time we drop down the cracks in our lives and hide in the familiar pages we have always adored, in a way we are seeing it all for the first time and being gifted with a fresh understanding both of the story and of ourselves.
Do you have comfort reads? Why not share them in the comments...