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Read What You Know: The Comfort of the Familiar

Read Sunday, 4 May 2014

Kate Larsen reflects on the pleasures of rereading, especially during tough times, when literary favourites offer the comfort of time spent with dear old friends … and a safe space to escape to.

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At the start of each new year, I look back on all the books that I had read the year before. In 2013, it was a list that spanned a lifetime of reading, with books from all the decades of my life. More than ever, it was also a list full of books that I found myself returning to for a second (or third, or forth) time.

It was a tough year of reading. A tough year for a lot of things, really. A year that began with grieving for a close friend’s lost child, which led to months of sleepless nights, when I was unable to concentrate on anything new. Instead of being in bed, I stalked my bookshelves up and down, looking for something to distract me, soothe me or send me back to sleep.

With rereading, I know what I am getting: I’ve been on these journeys before and I don’t need to worry about missing any plot twists or nuances in my sleep-deprived state. Any cliff-hangers or intrigues can be safely laid aside when sleep comes at last, because I’m clued-in to exactly how it’ll all work out in the end. I can even (gasp) begin a book midway through its pages – something I’d never dream of doing for an unread volume – a welcome shortcut to familiar passages that I know will be good company late at night.

It was in this act of rereading that I found my safe space: the old friends, the known words, the stories that go down easy. The books that I could trust to be free of the stimulation of new ideas (or the aggravation of poorly written prose) that can exacerbate insomnia.

Real life can be hard work. When we need to escape it for a moment, it has to be to somewhere we trust. True stories, unfamiliar fictions and newfound writing styles can seem too risky. We are comforted by the familiar; it brings us relief. For me, rereading became a sort of literary time machine – a clever trick I could wield on those nights that I found myself at my bookshelves at 2am, allowing me to get caught up in a story I already knew would have its ‘happily ever after’.

I began my year of rereading in the summer with books from my teenage years. Revisiting the entire Anne of Green Gables series made me realise for the first time how closely my own literary aspirations have followed those of aspiring writers Anne-with-an-e Shirley and Emily of New Moon. I found comfort in L.M. Montgomery’s small-town stories while quietly marvelling at the difference that 20 years of feminism and social justice education can do for a reader.

In autumn I had a house in mid-renovation, and had to take down and then reassemble my bookshelves, pack and unpack all my much-loved books. My bedside table reading pile swelled further with rediscovered friends. I sped through Harry Potter 3–7 (and launched a hunt for the missing two books). I spent some time with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, read the three Hunger Games books in three days, and revisited Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Rereading doesn’t just return us to a well-loved story, but to the people we were when we read them first: to simpler times. As a teenager, I had a go-to book of small poems and aphorisms that I’d return to when believing myself broken hearted. I dug it out again last year, but it had stopped working. Had the magic gone? Or had my grown-up troubles simply surpassed its scope? Either way, I realised it was time to pass it forward in the hope that it will help free some other young girl from her melodramatic melancholia.

For her Liticism blog on the Crikey news site in 2012, writer and critic Bethanie Blanchard also returned to one of her own childhood favourites, Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Like me, Matilda (another avid reader) used books to hide from the grim parts of her life. As Dahl wrote, ‘These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.’

Bethanie’s rereading also underlined the importance of choosing the right books to reread at the right time: ‘What surprised me about returning to Dahl is that rereading a childhood novel isn’t necessarily comfortingly nostalgic at all,’ she wrote. ‘Dahl emphasises the ways in which being a child is frightening, that you can feel powerless and oppressed by those bigger and more independent than you.’ Rereading is not just about treading old ground and I too made new discoveries within familiar twists of tales. ‘Literature is not like your hometown, which you revisit to find smaller and less impressive now you’re an adult,’ Peter Damien wrote for Book Riot in 2012. ‘Returning to books later on has given you tools to dive deeper and stay down there longer.’

It is for this reason that Terry Pratchett became my favourite night-time companion. In the early morning hours, his Discworld and my dream world seemed not too far apart, and there was always something new to discover in his easy-to-read and elegantly complex prose. I’d dive deeper but without the need to hold my breath in the way some books make you do the first time around.

With Pratchett leading the charge, I was struck by how much my late-night reading list swung towards the fantastical: to witches and wizards and invented worlds. I was weirdly hesitant to add them to my Twitter list of completed books — occasionally self-conscious of an over-representation of young adult or fantasy fiction in my usually wide-reading range. But perhaps it makes some sense that we speculate on fiction when our real-life lives aren’t that much fun.

By the cold mid-year, the rawness of my grief was starting to mellow and I had entered the strange limbo-space of loss, when how we look and behave on the outside no longer reflects the changed people we’ve become. As L.M. Montgomery wrote in Anne of Green Gables, ‘It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?’

I leant heavily on fiction in 2013. I needed to be swept up in story to still the useless whirring of my brain. Fantasy took me away from my own broken world and gave me a few hours reprieve. In the spring, I fell in love with angels again in The Vintners Luck, a rereading that with the help of new technologies meant that NZ author Elizabeth Knox could tweet me a message upon seeing I’d read it (when I don’t think I had even heard of Twitter the first time around).

While I may read across platforms in my day-time life, I found it interesting to note that in this year of nightly rereads, I returned to these books exclusively in paper form. In part, this was to avoid excess light stimulation (and late-night partner grumbliness), but mostly it’s because my comfort reads are almost entirely from the pre-ebook era.

By December, a year on from my little friend’s passing, her mum and I were still bruised but showing signs of starting to become human again, with my unwelcome wakefulness coming less often.

For me, it seemed that grieving and rereading went hand in hand last year: a process of reliving fond memories on both counts. But while I rekindled my adoration of a work like My Brilliant Career, I was also reminded that I’d wished I had never read Miles Franklin’s sequel, My Career Goes Bung (which I’ve apparently spent the subsequent years trying to suppress, hating the way it dismantles the first book’s dream world in which I so wanted to believe). So I’ve inserted a note in its pages for next time around, to my however-many-years-in-the-future insomniac self, a gentle reminder to read what I know, but to know when to stop reading too, and letting go.

Kate Larsen is a writer, poet and the director of Writers Victoria.

This is an edited version of a piece published in the new edition of Kill Your Darlings, available in bookshops (and online) now.

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