Your favourite books are like irresistible […] 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. […] 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.
Published in the Irish Times in the Guyliner column, this particular description of comfort reading particularly struck me, because to many, revisiting an old piece of media really is like returning to an old lover — with all the complexity that implies.
The difference is that comfort reading begins much earlier — and may provide even more insight than revisiting an old flame.
As just about any aunt, uncle, chosen family, or parent with children in their lives will tell you – kids love reading and re-reading and re-re-re-re-re-reading books. And a 2011 study in Frontiers in Psychology examining those repeated readings found something interesting — that when kids encounter words in familiar texts over and over again, they pick up that new vocabulary more quickly than if they run in to that same word in a new text. In other words, the familiarity helps ease learning.
This tracks with additional research on preschool comprehension studies that found the more students hear and re-hear a book, the more complex and detailed their questions about and discussion about the book became. As they encountered the same thing over and over again, they understood it better.
Which, frankly, is icing on the cake when you consider that interacting with familiar things helps create a sense of security, safety, and comfort. And the predictability of books or media does that in a way that few other things can.
As Jessi Lewis wrote in BookRiot, quote:
I can’t explain why. I can’t explain why familiar diction on a page feels like I’m hearing a story from a friend. I can’t explain why escapism requires a plot line on another continent, in a community far from my own. Even the violence of the book’s plot gives me a conflict I can analyze, consider and then close up and put away. This might be the true secret. I have the power to stop reading, while the real world keeps spinning its conflicts onward. This is how my mind can be tricked by a novel. Somehow, reading can convince my internal self into going elsewhere, and there’s comfort in that brief trip, even after the fact, when reality solidifies again.