On re-reading books - Hindustan Times
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On re-reading books

ByVanshika Randev
May 10, 2024 09:14 PM IST

Beyond being healing and restorative, your comfort books, those you read as a child and as a teenager, may surprise you by growing with you

Childhood and adolescence felt electrifying and endless, full of growing pains and restlessness, skinned knees and paper cuts. We had fleeting ideas of the world and paid more attention to simpler things. The books of my growing-up years made me feel like the world was big, too – like a vast playground that was ours to explore. Then, I found few things stranger than fiction, or more wondrous. I was figuring out the world as the characters traversed theirs, like we were embarking on a grand meaning-making exercise together. Karen Russell wrote, in a story for the New Yorker, “To be a kid requires difficult detective work. You have to piece together the entire universe from scratch.” The books I sought out – often involving some form of adventure or mystery – shaped part of how I came to view the world and how I existed within it.

“I grew up reading about explorers and reluctant chosen ones, unlikely trios and bands of misfits sticking together, overcoming adversity while fighting against slanted odds. I cared less about their success, and more about their unwavering belief in themselves.” (Shutterstock)
“I grew up reading about explorers and reluctant chosen ones, unlikely trios and bands of misfits sticking together, overcoming adversity while fighting against slanted odds. I cared less about their success, and more about their unwavering belief in themselves.” (Shutterstock)

While I haven’t been stranded on an island, imprisoned in an old mine, on a quest for golden fleece, or sleuthing on a cruise ship, these experiences feel intimately familiar. Taste can also signal memory – but tell me why I feel warmth thinking of ambrosia or butterbeer or a specific sandwich I’ve never had? Details from these stories can feel deeply personal, neatly tucked away into our memories. I grew up reading about explorers and reluctant chosen ones, unlikely trios and bands of misfits sticking together, overcoming adversity (saving the world or sometimes something lower stakes: revolting against the Capitol, catching some bad guys) while fighting against slanted odds. I cared less about their success, and more about their unwavering belief in themselves.

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“Books taught me about ciphers, archipelagoes, the catacombs under Paris, and what a Möbius strip is. “ (Shutterstock)
“Books taught me about ciphers, archipelagoes, the catacombs under Paris, and what a Möbius strip is. “ (Shutterstock)

These books taught me about ciphers, archipelagoes, the catacombs under Paris, and what a Möbius strip is. They gave geography and history lessons, taking me around the world from Cairo to Madagascar, and back in time, supplying facts from many decades ago and tales about Greek mythology. They showed me characters facing dilemmas and laid out the wide spectrum of morality. With Nancy Drew, I learned to trust my intuition. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson prized loyalty, bravery, wit, and compassion – reminding us to take on responsibilities without taking ourselves too seriously. By expanding our definitions of platonic love, the books also introduced us to support that goes beyond family. We held our breaths as characters chose to trust those that we were suspicious of, and we felt their pain when they were betrayed. We were encouraged to take risks, do the scary thing, have less regrets, treat people fairly, and be prepared as well as curious. I plucked singular truths out of the pages like some pluck the flowers they shouldn’t.

I still remember the fresh, early days of bookstore browsing, too – of going to Midland Book Shop in New Delhi’s Aurobindo market, an inviting patron of the arts, and making my way through its overflowing, stacked piles of books, with options for my every possible mood. I would move purposefully to the room tucked away in the back, lined with children’s and young adult fiction, checking on the latest editions of my favourite series. This was a time of reading books in one or two sittings – staying in one spot on the couch or reading under the covers on a school night until I was done, and hungry for more. I was yet to learn patience.

These books – whether imbued with fantasy or grounded in reality – sharpened our ability to feel things on a primal level, focus on certain core values, and let our imaginations run wild. They seeped into my days in the form of make-believe games, treasure hunts, a ‘secret garden’ in my old house, and elaborate plays performed in front of bewildered adults at dinner parties. Games of chor police felt urgent and exciting, and our hide-and-seek sessions rather high stakes (everyone was safe for the most part, save two minor incidents).

“Childhood stretches out unlike any other time – but you blink, and you’ll miss it.” (Shutterstock)
“Childhood stretches out unlike any other time – but you blink, and you’ll miss it.” (Shutterstock)

My brother, cousins, and I sometimes acted like we were living out a Famous Five plot while doing mundane things, like giving the neighbourhood stray puppies milk or making them homes out of cereal boxes and newspaper. In those moments, it felt like this was my whole world – just as oddly contained as the characters in the books. Our days were filled with play, and we were guided only by instinct and the sun, inventing our own language, on the cusp of something great. At the heart of it, aren’t adventure books about the things you choose to care about as the clock ticks away?

Childhood stretches out unlike any other time – but you blink, and you’ll miss it. When summer is on its last legs, I feel especially nostalgic. One Saturday morning in August 2020 was no different: things felt transitionary, and I felt slightly adrift. Instinctively, I turned to these steady companions (39 Clues in particular). Sometimes, the things you know to be true feel especially numbered. In these moments – when life feels less full of epiphanies and more littered with lingering confusion – I find myself devouring old books, which feel good for lost days, or when the world feels like it’s on fire. Uncertainty occasionally pairs well with light escapism, and these stories offer me comfort and familiarity, bundled up in worn out, yellowed pages. It seems so endearingly human to turn to art that previously touched you, in hopes of sparking a similar sense of joy again.

I’m reminded of a line that Alida Nugent wrote in an essay – “You still crave lemonade, but the taste doesn’t satisfy you as much as it used to. You still crave summer, but sometimes you mean summer, five years ago.” Re-reading can make you a time traveller, taking you back in a way other things cannot, tracing a map of your past selves. The stories are personal, making me feel like only I can see them. Revisiting books through seasons of change does many things – embolden a childlike sense of wonder, recapture parts of yourself that feel lost at sea, de-stress and offer solace and security, distract temporarily from current chaos, and present you with a bit of home and solid ground to plant your feet on. It is a golden reservoir of feel-good media that lets me feel less jaded, and I hold a profound sense of kinship with these characters that not much media today elicits.

Re-reading can also be endlessly fascinating. (Shutterstock)
Re-reading can also be endlessly fascinating. (Shutterstock)

Beyond being healing and restorative, re-reading has also been endlessly fascinating – I notice subtleties I never picked up on before. The stories take on new meanings when I’m in different places in my life. As I grew older, certain themes stood out – like Percy Jackson highlighting how people only see what they want to see, how they can so easily warp reality to fit their neat ideas of it. These books tap into nuanced, sensitive emotions too, with heroes not knowing how to lead a simple existence when they’re not in fight-or-flight mode, showing how constantly living on the edge makes it difficult to come off of it. When these characters are given the chance to be vulnerable – like when they are uncomfortable holding onto joy and wait for the other shoe to drop – it makes them more real. And when you feel like you are outgrowing yourself, your comfort books may surprise you by growing with you, continuing to offer you a place of rest.

As CS Lewis pointed out, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Life’s currents are strong, and you may be someplace else now, but these books can bring you back to a memory, or even take you to a place entirely new. I feel like I’m constantly coming of age, and these books indulge this. They let bits of old and new truths out, like secrets spilling out of the mouth of someone who no longer has anything to lose. While my reading habits have expanded into various other genres since, there comes a time, often on rainy days, when I hole myself away briefly in a world that I’m familiar with, where wonderful and bad things happen – but these are all measured and contained, and I can focus, one page at a time, on a plot I know like the back of my hand.

“Books can teach us things we sometimes forget as we grow up.” (Shutterstock)
“Books can teach us things we sometimes forget as we grow up.” (Shutterstock)

Life won’t be all about navigating mazes and having picnic lunches and tracking down bad guys without adult supervision (we’re the adults now). But these books can teach us things we sometimes forget as we grow up – like focusing on what matters when the world feels like it is collapsing, looking for smaller, more ordinary forms of magic and little worlds around us, and finding time for play. The clock is ticking. I wonder what we will seek from life – adventure, comfort, or both?

Vanshika Randev is a writer and editor from New Delhi. She covers stories on culture, books, health, and social impact. She can be found on X @vanshikarandev.

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