I re-read a favourite story recently.
My life is often a perfect wave of chaos, but as soon as I turned to the first chapter, I could feel my heart rate slow and my breathing even.
There are a few of these stories that I read time and again. As I think about them, I realize that they don’t have a lot of commonalities in terms of genre or tempo. Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” is on that re-read list but so is Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October” and the collected works of James Herriot and Basho (Separately. Not together. Although that would be very amusing.).
I know that it’s a lot less complicated for other people when it comes to what is or is not a favourite. Often it is a specific genre that feels like coming home when we open the book and it is what we consider the best books in that genre that become our favourite re-reads.
Because this is not how my brain works, I’ve been forced to think a lot harder about what it is that draws me back to a story.
I read a lot.
Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual-audio experiments – I read them all.
But there are definite books that I return to, that feel like I am slipping into my own skin when I move through those pages.
I have things that I know draw me into a story. Specific types of characterization, plot, and style will engage and hold my interest. But even stories that deliver perfectly on the things that I know I want won’t necessarily draw me back to re-read the book.
I’ve thought about this and tried to articulate what brings that sense of familiarity and joy when I re-read old favourites.
The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that it is an underlying generosity of spirit within both the characters and the writing.
Other works of Austen’s irritate me with some of their characterizations, but “Persuasion” is remarkably empathetic in how it handles its heroes and its villains. There is an understanding of people and the world that shapes them that I think was a lot less overtly written in her earlier stories.
I won’t turn this into a literary critique, but as I look through my list of re-readables, the underlying spirit of respect for the characters and the world they inhabit leaps out at me. It is easy enough to mock or to villainize, but I feel most comfortable in stories where there is a level of understanding extended, even to the least and worst of their inhabitants.
I know that there are different things that draw people back to stories, time and again.
For me, it has been an interesting discovery that I am most comfortable in a borrowed skin if it is one that is shared with generosity and respect.
I’m always interested to track what catches my own attention and brings me comfort. It’s interesting to see how that matches up with other people’s experiences.
I’m always interested in writing with respect and empathy. If you’d like to see whether or not I succeed, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.