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.


One thought on “Reading and the Strange Comfort of Repetition

  1. Enjoyed this, Kenny – as I always do your posts!

    It reminded me that as a child I didn’t read many books, but I read the same few books over and over again. I would always choose a familiar book I knew I loved over a new one which was more of a risk (which seems odd to me, now. I haven’t turned into that sort of adult at all!) There were a few children’s classics like ‘What Katy Did’ and ‘Heidi’ which I read SO many times, and I, too, preferred The Secret Seven to the Famous Five, interestingly.

    Not sure things changed much until I reached the Sixth Form when I took English A level and started to read more widely, then I went on to take a degree in English when I had to read a huge amount, and now I’m one of those voracious readers who consumes a book a day when I can, and especially in the summer, at home or on holiday. I have a few favourite authors but I also enjoy discovering something new.

    But one interesting thing that’s happened since I left headship – I joined a local Book Club and, because of the fact that I have read widely over the past 40 years or so, often the Book Club choices are books I’ve read before, so I always reread them prior to our meeting. Just about every book I’ve reread I’ve enjoyed more the second time around – however much I enjoyed it the first time (and sometimes I did enjoy it the first time, and sometimes not so much). I think part of it is that on a first reading I tend to focus on what happens. When I reread a book and I know what happens I look more closely at other things, such as how the writer uses language and manipulates the reader’s emotions. I become more aware of themes and threads. I just then have to try not to be too much of an English teacher when Book Club meets….

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