I’m writing this from deep in the phony war that is the fortnight before A level exams. Admittedly for me that doesn’t add up to much more than fetching endless mugs of tea and towers of biscuits without shouting ‘get them yourself’ but for Hon and for lots of you reading this, the pressure of exams is very real, maybe worse than ever before. Books can help (but if you’re feeling really stressed please talk to someone about it). I’m not talking about the books that you have to read, although you’re in trouble if they don’t help – and to this day I have fond memories of any number of set texts – I’m talking about the comfort books, the distraction books, the books that make you feel safer. There’s a special place on the shelf for the books that you cling on to on the day that you’ve lost your notes on Peter the Great or singularly failed to understand the law of diminishing returns. These are the books that you take to bed while it’s still light outside because books are like a second door that nobody (not even a well meaning parent bearing mugs of tea) can enter without at least asking.
So what makes a great comfort read or is it all subjective? I asked around on Twitter (I spend way too much time on Twitter, I’m like the revising student that won’t click down Facebook) and here’s what I discovered:
- Comfort reading starts young, of course it does, think of the picture book you demanded to have read to you time after time and still secretly wanted to read when you were well on the way to chapter books. It sets a pattern, not a fixed one but it’s there. There’s a great blog piece on this by Minerva ‘Re-Reading: Why do Children Do It? And Should We?’, ‘The emotional depth is stronger second time around.’
- For so many of us the key seems to be familiarity. We re-read less as we get older but we seem prone to return to much loved books when we’re stressed. @bear-faced-lady calls them her ‘self-defence books’. The people I asked repeatedly spoke of worlds that they knew so well that they could disappear into them effortlessly. Worlds that they felt safe within whether that’s Hogwarts or Blandings. It’s a little bit like that ‘happy place’ that they make you visualise in meditation tapes (I’m a stressy person, I know this stuff!)
- There doesn’t seem to be any one genre that lends itself particularly to de-stressing, I wouldn’t find reading about murder or terror relaxing but it seems that there are plenty who do (Agatha Christie and J.K Rowling got a lot of mentions) but my straw poll suggests that people don’t experiment with genre when they’re stressed – they go to their favourite. And whatever the genre a lot of the books mentioned had in common, if not a happy ending, at least a just one. The feeling that everything will turn out well or at least as it should in the end. It doesn’t take much to see why that might be an appealing message at this time of year.
- Across lots of genres there seems appreciation of the books that people describe as ‘easy reads’. This is said (in this context at least) without judgment, or without negative judgment. There’s an appreciation of the skill of the authors that can create a fast relaxing read (there were mentions for Georgette Heyer and Jilly Cooper). Sometimes the very predictability of a book series or an author’s output is a positive. There are days when you don’t want the new; you want exactly what you expect.
And maybe give yourself a bit of time after exams to stay in the comfort zone. I really did intend to pick up Proust seconds after my last law paper and read every word in the original (I was young and foolish) but it didn’t happen because some kind person gave me The Carrier Bag full of contraband. Passed from exam exhausted student to exam exhausted student it was filled with dog-eared copies of Mills & Boon (particularly enjoyed by the English literature grads). Escapism was necessary. I never did get around to Proust.
Or just watch box sets.
Or bake. (Is it a cake? Is it Politics revision? Is it a cry for help?!)
You’re going through a lot – do what works for you.
With luck and love, Perdita x