The Guyliner on comfort reading: why do I read same books over and over again?
Favourite books are like irresistible old boyfriends, your first loves. They are a reminder of your past, a lazy read or a refresher course. These are mine
If I don’t want to think too hard or get my head round convoluted plot points, back I’ll go wandering through well-known chapters, like the second Mrs de Winter wandering Manderley in her dreams – and, yes, Rebecca is one of them. Of course it is. Photograph: Getty Images
There’s a lot to be said for doing things over and over again. It’s how we learn our favourite songs, by hitting repeat or skipping back to the beginning. Find the perfect holiday destination, and it’s not uncommon for you to make it your “thing” to return every year, a regular haunt, comforting and familiar, yet still exotic enough to feel like you’re getting away. Rewatching TV shows and movies gives the same feeling, too. Social media lets us watch along from our sofas across the country, reliving favourite scenes and bonding over the fact we know what’s coming. But books, during the reading phase at least, are a more solitary experience; it’s highly unlikely anyone rereading along with us would keep the same pace, or append importance to the same characters or plot points, so why do we dip our toes back in? Why do we go back to books again and again, when we know how it ends, what each character will do?
Your favourite books are like irresistible old boyfriends, your first loves – we are fated to return to them, even though we know they can never change, they’ll always be just as they were. We loved it so much last time around, we want to live again that first love feeling, but with each successive reading, the initial charm and excitement dims, a stark reminder that first-time high can’t be repeated. But, just like those shadowy former paramours, each time spent with them reveals something new, something you hadn’t seen before. It can be positive: a new outlook on a character, a renewed appreciation for a particular description or the rediscovering of killer dialogue. But, just like the ex-lovers, it can be negative: plot holes, bad characterisation, and still that inevitable unsatisfactory ending waiting for you.
I have a few books I’ve returned to over the years. If I’m going to read a book twice, it’s highly likely I won’t stop there – some dog-eared novels in my collection must be nearing 10 or 15 sittings. When I moved house last year, and came to the inescapable “chuck or cherish” clear-out for the charity shop, I’d pick up my old faithfuls and get quite emotional at the thought of them ending up in someone else’s hands. Surely, I’d want to read them one more time? Most of them stayed, with only the most battered tomes heading for pastures new. There can be all sorts of reasons I come back to them, but it’s usually if I’ve hit a wall with something new I’m reading and want to make sure the problem isn’t me. Like being offered a coffee bean to smell in a perfume shop to clear your airways, reading familiar books clears my head, reminds me how to read properly and pick up on things I might have missed. Conversely, they’re also a lazy read – if I don’t want to think too hard or get my head round convoluted plot points, back I’ll go wandering through well-known chapters, like the second Mrs de Winter wandering Manderley in her dreams – and, yes, Rebecca is one of them. Of course it is.
When bad things happen, or uncertainty looms, I turn to them again. Characters I know inside out, that I’ve read about and judged and loved and hated with different eyes each time, at varying stages of my life, from boy to man, poor to rich to poor again, shivering in student halls and luxuriating in front of open fires, loved and unloved, happy and sad. Only the books stayed the same, while a million versions of me found comfort in every line. Whenever I do read them again, I think back to previous times I’ve read them – who I was then, what I remembered about that time, how my perception of the book, and myself, have changed. They’re a history lesson in myself.
In no particular order, because I haven’t been keeping score, here are my most-read books. They’re not cerebral, they’re not impressive, but they wrap themselves around me every moment, even when I’m not reading.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Gloomy and glamorous and beautifully written, I always come back to Rebecca. I never want it to end, and always wish we could find out what happens next. With each reading, I will the second Mrs de Winter to tell Mrs Danvers to sod off, to speak up and be confident, to enjoy her time as the lady of Manderley. But, of course, she never does - she can only be herself.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
I first read this book, and its equally impressive sequel, when I was far too young to be reading things like that, and now it serves as a modern history lesson. It’s an ’80s Britain I can remember, although I was much younger than Adrian, and it’s a chance to put myself back in the mind of a teenage boy again – and feel huge relief I don’t have to go through all that again.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Still kind of hoping that one day I’ll reread this and find the older Cathy survives after all.
The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith
The frankly weird sequel to classic A Hundred and One Dalmatians picks up with Pongo and Missis again, to find them living in a world where all the humans are asleep and dogs can fly, only to be propositioned by an ethereal dog spirit who wants them to live in space with him. It’s crazy and, unsurprisingly, is my favourite children’s book. A friend bought a new edition for me one recent birthday and it was quite emotional, to be honest.
The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley
Coming from a working-class background and being a shameless social climber who used to find posh people fascinating – now, not so much – one of my favourites to read and reread was this tale of young upper-middle class cousins in World War Two. The characters are so brilliantly drawn, and I feel I know them so well. It’s one of those books where pretty much everyone has the vilest personality imaginable and is dangerously flawed. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much, and have read it at least 20 times.
Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw
When I was a teenager, I loved reading big family sagas and this one has so much going on, there’s always a plot twist you’ve forgotten, even after reading it five times. It has a sequel too, which is so hugely disappointing it received the ultimate disrespect from me – I only read it twice.
The Stud by Jackie Collins
What a book. To say it’s a bonkbuster, it’s pretty wilfully sexless. Nobody seems to be enjoying themselves that much. It has three narrators and every time I read it, I end up siding with a different one each time. Jackie Collins was a way smarter writer than she was given credit for, and The Stud is witty, charming and full of life.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
Sometimes I reread this to remind myself that for all my arsenal of witty asides and withering putdowns, I will never, ever match this book’s narrator, Barbara Covett. She’s a blistering whirlwind of bitterness, resentment and spite – and super smart – and I never tire of reading her venom.
Barmy by Victoria Wood
OK, not a book, but a set of scripts, from, I think, the second series of Victoria’s ’80s sketch show, As Seen On TV. I don’t need to read this, really, as I know every line and stage direction, but I still do, often.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Reading this book is like having friends in San Francisco and travelling over to meet up with them every year. Through its main characters, it perfectly describes every stage of moving to the big city, from wide-eyed excitement at the future to weary realisation it’s not quite working out as you’d hoped. Quotable, gripping and fun, this was also, if I think back, the first gay-themed book I ever read, aged 15. What an amazing start.
The Guyliner is a writer and editor from London. He writes about dating and gives relationship advice to readers of Gay Times magazine. theguyliner.com