Why I re-read books.

The first book that I remember re-reading was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was aged 11, and there was no sequel yet. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. I still remember the day I finished it, crying in my bedroom and feeling like I’d just lost one of my best friends. Then the idea hit me: I could just read it again and re-live the entire experience. I read it four times before the second book came out.

Re-reading books starts in infancy, with patient parents repeatedly reading the same books to their children. The more often I read a book to my young daughters, the more they love the book. But I rarely re-read books now as an adult. This is partly because I can’t even get through my reading list of new books, let alone keep going back to ones I’ve read before. But every now and then an old book calls to me, it’s familiar spine almost glowing on my book case. Sometimes it’s when I feel nostalgic, or want to read something that I’m guaranteed to enjoy. Sometimes it’s because I’ve momentarily mislaid the book that I’m in the middle of and don’t want to start something new until I find it. And sometimes it’s because I want to be transported to another place, somewhere comfortable and familiar.

For a few years, the book I re-read was David Copperfield. I think this is Dicken’s masterpiece, and the humour takes the edge off the dark subject. I first read it when I was newly engaged, and liked to compare the similarities and differences between David’s young adult life and mine. I felt that no matter how tough my life got, it was never as hard as David’s. Which was a constant reassurance, even if he was a fictitious character.

But now the book I re-read is Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Admittedly, this started with my love of the BBC television programme, which led to reading the book. But unlike David Copperfield, I don’t read this book for the characters, because the book is more about the times than the individual people. I re-read this book for the feelings it evokes in me.

What’s strange about the fact that I re-read this book, is that it doesn’t necessarily make me feel happier. It makes me feel like I was born in the wrong century, and I feel nostalgic for a life I never had. It is set in a hamlet, in the late 1800s, a time when the roads were only trodden on by horses. When everyone had a role and a purpose, and no family in the hamlet suffered unemployment because machines hadn’t yet taken over farming.

Of course I don’t crave the poverty that existed back then. As Thompson says, “Poverty is no disgrace, but it is a great inconvenience.” But I do crave the simplicity of the times. Life now is so full of choice, that no matter what option we pick, we are always left wondering if we would have been happier with the other option. There was no choice in the hamlet, with every family living the same lives, and only their characters making them different. Their lives were as entwined as the ivy growing up their cottages, with a community unlike any I have ever experienced.

Would I transport myself back to those times? Part of me says yes, I think I would enjoy the life of simplicity, old-fashioned skills and community living. But the woman in me says no, because there is no excuse that can justify gender inequality. In Larkrise, the men went out to work, the women stayed home to raise the family and keep the house. While this would not be a problem for me, it would not suit me to have no choice about it. Choice is a vicious circle, with too much causing havoc, and too little causing despair. The reader and writer in me also says no. Illiteracy was common place, and reading was looked down upon. I cannot imagine a life without they joys of reading, and the release of writing.

And so instead I will keep picking up my tattered copy of Larkrise to Candleford, and dream of the best parts of another world. That’s the joy of a book, you only have to imagine the parts you want to. And escape, just for a little while, into a world without your own problems. Again, and again, and again.