I just read this post at Reflections of a Book Addict by guest poster Kelly Lauer (no relation of which I’m aware); she sums up neatly why books are so comforting. This quote, in particular really gets to the heart of it:
Books didn’t care if I didn’t know what the curse words meant. Books didn’t care if I missed all the sub-context. Books really didn’t care if I wore that neon green stegosaurus sweatshirt every freaking day. Books don’t judge; people have the corner of the market on that one. And books were always there for me, because I was lucky enough to be surrounded by them and to be my mom’s daughter.
I love this. Reading books is so important not just because they expand our minds, but because they do so gently, and without any pressure. I am a teacher, and I find great value in discussion, but it can often feel combative, or like a test. Books are patient, and willing to explain things to you over and over, and if in the end something is missed, there’s no shame. Lauer puts a point on why books can be so comforting, even when the material is uncomfortable. They give you a chance to face a challenge or problem without requiring that you are fully prepared to defend yourself or even to change something – not until you’re ready to, at least.
Books let you feel at home in difference in a way that little else does. They let you come and go and don’t mind telling you the same thing they told you the last time you came to visit.
For all my love of books and reading, I spend a lot more time re-reading than I do picking up new books. There are some obvious reasons – I like the comfort of revisiting a familiar world, getting new insights and details that I couldn’t have foreseen but which now seem so important given what I know of the ending. But I think I actually prefer re-reading to reading the first time. Especially with non-fiction books, I sometimes find myself using the first read to create a scaffolding in my brain so that on the next time through, I can pick the bits I like and hang them where they fit best, so I can process everything, and try out new ideas. Then on a third read, I furiously redecorate everything until I get it all just right, and inevitably, I rummage around and find new things that I hadn’t originally had a place for, and the whole thing must be taken apart and the scaffolding rebuilt anew.
I think I’ve read Plato’s Symposium at least twenty times in full, and have taught it nearly as many times. I’ve read countless student papers on what the main message of text is, and yet, I still can’t decide if we’re meant to think the Beautiful is within our grasp, or if we’re all just the victims of a grotesque joke, like the poor split androgens in Aristophanes’ speech who think they’re happy when they find their other halves, but who have actually forgotten what they had wanted in the first place – to overthrow the gods, to get back to their cosmological parents. I think it must be the latter, as I’m sure I can read it another twenty times and never really know.
But at least I have the comfort that the book will be there for me, should I have the urge to return and rummage around a bit more.