Reading and the Strange Comfort of Repetition


There is something strangely comforting about repetition. I write that while sitting in a house we’ve rented every summer for the last three years. I look out at the same view every morning. Nothing about the place changes. The chairs, the dining table, the kitchen. We arrive and experience an overwhelming feeling of warmth and welcome. I’m not sure if it is a growing old thing but the constant search for newness exhausts me now. Perhaps it always did. But don’t we all return to things which give us that safety and comfort?

If you’ve ever experienced the obsession that young children have for a particular movie – they have maybe insisted that you sit through ‘Toy Story’ forty times – then you might begin to understand the phenomena. Children find solace and comfort in knowing what happens in these films; things work out in the end. It is why we have our favourite films; we , also, have come to this house this summer with, more or less, the same half dozen DVDs we always watch. Classic black and whites for the most part but we love them. The films themselves never change but we do and that brings new meaning to the experiences we have, even if we have been there before.

You could apply that same philosophy to music. Your ipod, I’m sure, will tell an interesting tale if you listen to the ‘most listened to’ mode. Despite trying to listen to new music, I’m more than likely to be listening to The Smiths or Tom Waits or Elvis. These form part of the wallpaper of my past and provide that safety and comfort. But what about reading?

For a year or two I’ve been promising myself a year of the reread. What would happen if I spent a year exclusively rereading the books that formed me; those books which made me a reader? I’ve even written the list; Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series which I could not put down in the early nineties; ‘Z for Zachariah’ which I read in my early teens and scared the bejeezuz out of me; ‘The Secret Seven’ books which I read instead of ‘The Famous Five’ just to be awkward; and a dozen others. What might I think of them as an adult, and an adult so set in his ways that he refuses to believe that few great movies have been made in colour? I might be over optimistic to think that I would still see them the same way I did thirty-odd years ago but I still fancy there will be something to take me back there, even the odd tearful reminder of a young boy long lost to me.

I often have to be careful about that when children in my English class reread books many times. I’ve had some read the Harry Potter books over and over; Narnia is another favourite. This year there was a young lad who was obsessed with the ‘Alex Rider’ books and it took an interesting chat with his Parents to really understand the level of the ‘problem’. I don’t think any of us should have been too concerned. He was reading, at least, but also returning to an old friend, trying to recapture the excitement of that first time. As Alan Jacobs says in ‘The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction’:

‘…we return again and again to our favourites, striving to calculate how best to maintain the magic’.

Keeping him reading is the key and, gently, nudging him in another direction is what we as teachers – and experienced readers – should be doing. He is doing what all new readers do: attempting rediscover that strange land we all arrive at in our reading. Again Alan Jacobs:

‘…we should note that it’s not what readers are escaping from but what they are escaping into that counts most.’ p. 130

When he’s older, sharing a space with Alex Rider won’t be the same, just as I hated being in Hobbiton as an adult, couldn’t stand it. So we may well see the joy in the writing of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, we may even be reminded of the idealistic thrill of another Blyton adventure but it’s never the same. Those places stay there but we have changed.

I’m not sure if it is a mid-life crisis to return the scenes of our formative moments. I hope not. But if I ever do go there I will be aware that I am a stranger in town. The boy who lived these lives side by side with the characters is long gone. But there’s something safe and comforting in knowing that.


Sharing Our Reading Lives


“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Gloria Steinem

Undoubtedly, we waste  lot of our time and money in Education paying for and implementing strategies and beliefs that we think should work. When those are questioned, it doesn’t sit well with us. We are, after all, intelligent and rational people, are we not? In his cracking wee book, ‘The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction’, Alan Jacobs suggests that ‘the idea that…one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading – or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books – is largely alien to the history of education’. (P.113) And, yes, part of that didn’t sit well with me.

Promoting a love of reading is, unashamedly, one of the key aims of my English classes. That doesn’t mean I exclude other forms of teaching reading; my classes are well-versed in interpretation skills, skimming and scanning etc.  But I’ve blogged many times before about the dangers of failing to promote reading as a lifetime pursuit. ‘Alliteracy’ – I can read and write but I choose not to – is a scarier prospect to me.   I often ask  my pupils if they see themselves as readers and whether that is really important to them. What does that actually mean? They stare back at me in confused silence.

These are bookskids who read every day in my class. Many churn through books; some struggle but read more with me than they’ve ever done. However, unless I share my reading life with them, I don’t think many of them have any concept of what it means to be ‘a reader’ and what that might mean to them in the future. Rather than creating lists of ‘books I’ve read’, how can we share our experiences of being ‘readers’? Telling them about the great books I’ve read isn’t enough.

Despite the number of  books I’ve read over my lifetime, if I was being honest, I would admit that, for most of them,  six months later I could barely remember more than I would have read on the back cover. What could I could tell you though was that I read ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ travelling through Greece on a slow train to Olympia; ploughed through several Gore Vidal novels during one snow hit Aberdeen winter; finished ‘Wuthering Heights’ in a town square of a little Romanian village. And there, you begin to hear my story. It’s not about the books but about the reader.

Jacobs convincingly argues the case for reading in the modern age but then I was convinced before I started reading it. ‘What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head on.’  (p.89) We’re forever being told that the internet has ruined reading for kids – although perhaps their skimming and scanning skill are better than ever? Schools are still spending buckets of cash buying in programmes and systems to promote reading. But perhaps the greatest strategy of all is to share our own reading lives with them: to talk  more about the reader rather than the book.I really believe that it works.