Finding Comfort in Old Books and Familiar Writing

During lockdown, many of us are filling up our bookshelves with new reads and good intentions. If you’re anything like me, your well-intentioned pile of to-be-read books could almost rival the grandiose heights of Mount Vesuvius. Every day, a parcel thumps against the doormat; book-shaped, bubble-wrapped, a promise. Hours of every evening are spent spiralling down the perennial rabbit hole of online book recommendations, clicking title after title into the virtual shopping basket.

The bookshelves fatten. I prise another new book from its jiffy bag; inhale its crisp paper-and-ink scent.

When the weekend finally comes, I complain: “I’ve got nothing to read.”

The Curse of the ‘Never-To-Be-Read’ Pile

Why is it that our ‘to-be-read’ piles remain that way for so long? Take a look at your own titles. How many of those were bought recently? How many have you been making excuses for years not to read? What happens when you pick one up and read the blurb?

For weeks, I’ve been trying to motivate myself to hit that ‘to-be-read’ pile but with little success. At the beginning of lockdown, I started out with an almost commendable effort. I discovered a gem or three that I only wish I’d just read before and stopped putting off. Not just poetry books either; fat, critically-acclaimed novels from prizes five to ten years ago.

Now, as we reach double figures in weeks of lockdown, the drive to read novels is gone. This week, even poems dissolve on the page before the lines can unravel. After staring at these stale walls for so long in my home office, I crave new experiences. However, for some inexplicable reason, I am apprehensive about delving into new worlds in literature.

I want words and stories I can trust to safely transport me somewhere as reassuringly familiar as a hug from a good friend when real hugs cannot be had. I want to get lost in dialogue with familiar characters, see in my mind’s eye familiar places, and feel prepared for endings with prior knowledge. I don’t want unpredictability.

I want certainty. I want comfort,

Books: Threads in the Tapestry of Life

What are the five top books that you can honestly say fuelled your love of reading? Start from childhood. It’s likely that, for every victory or for every challenge in life, there’s a book that was there for you. For bibliophiles, books are interwoven through our lives like a thread, pulling memories together.

Remember the poetry collection that helped heal your heart during a break-up? What about the picture book that first got you clumsily illustrating your own stories with fat chunks of Crayola? Was there a book that lifted you from the seat of an eight-hour flight and gave you a taste of somewhere exotic before the plane even touched down upon the runway? A book gifted to you by a dear friend?

As I mentioned in my recent article for Wales Arts Review, we are living in a time of collective grief. We may feel listless, isolated and afraid. 

To seek comfort in the familiar when we can’t seek comfort in hugging a friend is only natural. We need something to connect with, and for many of us, that something will be books.

Finding New Relevance in Old Words

There’s a particular poem I love, one that never fails to bring me comfort no matter the situation. It’s a poem that spoke to me through my first (and my last) break-up, that brought quiet moments of respite during the lowest points of a restrictive eating disorder, and that still lifts me whenever my confidence has ebbed to its lowest point.

This poem is Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, which you can read here.

Even now, reading it back, I feel my jaw unclench and my shoulders release. The room around me falls silent; there is nothing but the words and a sense of being heard.

Upon every reading, it means something new to me. In a way, the line “you will greet yourself arriving / at your own door, in your own mirror / and each will smile at the other’s welcome” is a reunion. In this moment, this is not just a poem about re-learning to love yourself again, but to love the words you may long have abandoned.

Go back and re-read one of your favourites that got you through one of the best or worst times of your life. For me, I might return to Plath, the Brontës, Steinbeck, Chaucer or perhaps one of the Greek plays. Perhaps I’ll crave comfort in the fantasy novels of my young teens: Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart or Song Quest by Katherine Roberts. Or I could return to take the shape of my twelve-year-old self again through the books of Jacqueline Wilson, becoming a carefree young girl once again for an hour or two.

After all that’s happened in your life between the time you first read the book and where you are now, old words will mean something different to you as you read them back now. 

However, the familiarity of those characters, places and the style will feel as though meeting one of those rare and real friends with whom no love has diminished, despite the passing of time.

The ‘To-Be-Read-Over-And-Over’ Pile

This week, make a point to stop guiltily picking up the top book from the ‘to-be-read’ pile only to put it back to sheepishly remove an old favourite from the bookshelf. 

Go on an act of rediscovery. Fall in love with your old favourites all over again.

Make a list of all the books that have served you and given you joy over the years: start with the first books that ever made you want to start reading (if that’s Spot Goes to the Park, fine. Read that. It’s a more calming alternative to begrudgingly dragging War and Peace from the ‘to-be-read’ pile).

Shamelessly create your ‘To-Be-Read-Over-And-Over’ pile and place it in full view of your bedside. 

Waltz once again into one of Gatsby’s glittering parties, or sit with Hamlet’s monologue for the first time since university. See what you can find in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land that you never saw before. Hop on the Hogwarts express and do another year with Gryffindor if you want.

As a writer, I can tell you that I want people to delve into my books over and over again. I want people to find something new upon re-reading. After all, songs and albums don’t have a limit for the amount of times you listen to them. And neither do books. They’re just a paper-bound soundtrack to your life. 

Go ahead and play it.

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