Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comfort Reading

By Holly West

I didn't have a happy childhood.

It's no one's fault, really. Nothing too terrible happened to me when I was growing up. I was just a depressed kid. Back then, parents (or at least my parents) didn't have the resources available to deal with depression in children the way they do now. And when I think about it, what could they have realistically done? Put me on meds? In therapy? Even now, I'm skeptical about putting kids on psychoactive drugs, and they weren't viable options during my childhood and adolescence anyway. Or maybe they were, I don't know. Like I said, my parents lacked resources.

This isn't to say I didn't have tools to cope with my depression. I did. Those tools were books.

When I was a kid, I did a lot of what I now call "comfort reading." I read constantly; it was the only way I could reliably keep my racing thoughts and anxiety at bay. Plus, I could do it alone in my room, with my door closed. I didn't have to deal with the turmoil that sometimes reverberated through the rest of the house. And I could control the books I read even if I wasn't in charge of anything else in my life. When my parents forbade certain titles, I read them anyway. How were they to know what well-worn paperbacks I had hidden under my mattress?

I read the books I loved over and over again, the way some people overeat. It's impossible to know how many times I've read Three Without Fear by Robert C. Du Soe, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald, or the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lingren. Later, my favorite authors were Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, and Richard Peck, along with a few other stand-alone novels. Suffice to say, during the 1970s and 80s there was a small selection of books in the El Dorado County Library that bore my name over and over again. In some of them, my name occurred several times in a row with no one checking them out in-between.

The reading was constant, but the reading material didn't vary much. Consequently, as an adult, I find myself woefully inept when it comes to literature. Instead of reading the classics, as some kids do, I preferred to read the same books repeatedly. In high school I think I read one assigned book--Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Truthfully, I'm not sure how even that one made the cut. One year my class had to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and my mom told me how much she loved it. She went on to tell me what it was about and I ended up writing my book report based on her account.

I was an A-student in English. No joke.

Funny, but I rarely re-read books any more. I no longer have the patience or the time to do it. Being a writer has forever changed the way I read books anyway--I can never just read something without analyzing the structure of it or thinking about character development or what-have-you. Pleasure reading has unfortunately been a casualty of my writing career, and I'm struggling to get it back.

That said, over the years, I've re-purchased many of the books I loved as a child, and occasionally, I'll get a hankering for some comfort and take one off of the shelf. They didn't fail me back then, and they don't fail me now. Although now, the antidepressants help too.

I'm curious. What kind of reader were you when you were a kid?


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

As a kid I read books for the sheer joy of reading books. As a grownup kid I still do. In spite of reviewing books now, things like structure and character development are lost on me. I don't go beyond stating "This is the book I read and this is what it is about." And did I like it? Yes. All books are nice.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved MRS. PIGGLE WIGGLE books too. And now I see they are actually quite scolding and didactic. I guess I had a need for order and she was able to achieve it. Also she dispensed scary medicines without a license. I am getting upset thinking about her techniques.

Dana King said...

I was one of those kids my father would sometimes throw out of the house to get some exercise; I'd lose track of time reading. I re-read a lot of stuff: HARDY BOYS, CHIP HILTON, John R. Tunis's sports books, CALL OF THE WILD, TARZAN, Sherlock Holmes. The usual boy's stuff.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a re-reader and, like you, definitely tucked myself into a book to be in a safe place. I did have a good childhood and wasn't depressed, but was very shy and (knowing myself now and looking back) probably also anxious. And books were away from all that.

I do still re-read, though. I have some fun catching what my favorite authors were actually DOING (now that I've read them X-teen-zillion times and am not QUITE as caught up in the actual story), and there is still a safe, quiet, nothing-bad-can-get-me-here feeling to books I already know, or books by authors I already know.

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

Al Tucher said...

I was the kind of kid who read books that were above my level of understanding. I read CATCH-22 and HARPO SPEAKS (the autobiography of Harp Marx) before I turned thirteen, and I still have the odd insight into them. "Oh, that's what that part was about."

I have reread CATCH-22 several times since then, but I prefer to remember Harpo as I found him then.