If you’ve been rereading books you adore, welcome to the club. Like a well-loved blanket and a favorite set of jammies, familiar books, worlds and stories may be exactly what you need when everything both changes by the minute and remains relentlessly the same. (Breaking news: The couch is still comfortable, and I am still on it.)
If you’re wondering why rereads are what you most want, the answer is simple: Your brain, much like the rest of you, is tired. As many experts, including coach and author Alexis Rockley, have recently explained, our cognitive energy is a finite resource, steadily being used up by every piece of “new abnormal” we have to manage. The stress of information overload and lack of control was already overwhelming, even before adding the emotional stress of walking six feet around everyone, remembering masks and gloves and devouring yet another package of Oreos (maybe that last one is just me). When even getting the groceries involves a 15-step containment process and constant proximity vigilance, there is no autopilot. Everything is new, so everything is exhausting.
That loss of cognitive energy for someone like me, who loves reading above all things save carbohydrates, means that my mind doesn’t have its usual pep when confronted with a new book, a new world and new characters. This was initially upsetting, as there are piles of new books I want to read. My solution for now is to revisit some of my favorite past companions instead.
Familiarity is key when facing down mental overload, and publishers are noting an uptick in backlist sales — a trend that is itself familiar. Cindy Hwang, vice president and editorial director of Penguin Random House’s Berkley imprint, notes that people weather challenging times with comforting reads designed to lift spirits. “If you look back, screwball comedy grew out of the Great Depression,” she said, “and the chick-lit boom followed shortly after the tragedy of 9/11. Similarly, we’re now seeing readers turn to the comfort of familiar, escapist fiction at a time when our future is uncertain.”
She has recently seen weekly sales increase dramatically for romance authors, such as Jasmine Guillory and Nora Roberts, mystery novels and the backlist of popular novelists like Liane Moriarty.
Fanfiction sites have also been experiencing a massive surge in traffic during the Quarantimes. Hugo Award-winning site Archive of Our Own announced that it was taking emergency steps to manage server loads with “weekly page views increasing from 262 million to 298 million in just two weeks.” The increase isn’t surprising: Fanfic was already popular, but now it offers the soothing experience of new stories set in recognizable places with characters we already know. A large portion of the cognitive work is already done before you even begin reading.
Aarya Marsden, an avid romance reader who also writes reviews for my site, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, says that lately, she doesn’t have the energy to reread an entire book. To get around that problem, she is rereading her favorite scenes. “Ten minutes of comfort reading in the morning is enough to give me a happy buzz for the entire day,” she said. “It starts the day off on the right note and then I can read a new book at night.” In the past week, she has reread snippets from the Psy/Changeling series, by Nalini Singh (Sienna saving the day in “Kiss of Snow”), the Hidden Legacy series, by Ilona Andrews (ferret heist!) and “My Fair Concubine,” by Jeannie Lin.
Berkley Deputy Publicity Director Erin Galloway is also revisiting Singh’s Psy/Changeling novels “because they offer a guaranteed dose of happiness and hope,” she said. “I know many colleagues are rereading books they consider old friends.” Because so many readers are comforted by favorite reads, Berkley has started an Instagram campaign — #allwereadislove — so that readers can share the romance novels that are helping them through this social distancing period.
There’s a sense of security that comes with a reread: You already know what’s going to happen, no spoiler alerts needed. That aspect appeals to Marsden. “There’s comfort in being able to predict and control your surroundings,” she said. “It’s a relief to sink into something that goes exactly to plan.” My own stack includes books I’ve read more than a half-dozen times but never lose their potency, such as Courtney Milan’s historical romances and Lucy Parker’s contemporary series set in the London theater scene.
So, if you’re thinking of bingeing yet again on a favorite series, visual or literary, I hope you’re comforted by the knowledge that you’re not alone. It’s utterly normal to want to reenter stories you know will be pleasurable when so little else about our current situation is guaranteed. Just give your brain what it wants without shame or guilt. There will be plenty of time for new books when this is over. For now, the art of the gentle reread is perfect, once, twice or even thrice upon a time.
Sarah Wendell??is the author of three books and co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, one of the most popular and longest-running online communities devoted to romance fiction.