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Rereading Childhood Books Teaches Adults About Themselves

Whether they delight or disappoint, old books provide touchstones for tracking personal growth.
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People’s favorite childhood stories often stick with them throughout their lives. When the book-centric social media site Goodreads tracked the books most reread by its users, many of them were children’s books, including J. K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

For many, having kids of their own provides an opportunity to share these beloved stories with the next generation. But revisiting them alone as adults can also provide comfort, relaxation, and the pleasure of rediscovery. Not only do rereaders rediscover the story, but they may also rediscover themselves.

Rereading “reminds us that we can experience something intensely and not be seeing everything at the time. And going back, we see something different,” says Jill Campbell, an English professor at Yale. “It’s a way of thinking more about a book that’s had an impact on you, but it’s also a way of thinking about your own life, memories, and experiences. The continuities and the differences.”

The literary critic J. Hillis Miller once wrote about revisiting a beloved childhood book, Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson, much later in life. The book tells of a family shipwrecked on a desert island, where they must fend for themselves in the wild. Miller was immediately brought back to “that wonderful, safely uninhabited, tropical island, teeming with every sort of bird, beast, fish, tree, and plant,” he writes.

The experience also brings him back to his childhood, transcending the passage of time. He remembers camping trips with his family, where “equipped with no more than you could carry on your back, you could ‘set up camp,’ cut some fragrant balsam boughs for bedding, make a camp fire for cooking and heat and, in short, create a whole new domestic world in the wilderness,” he writes. “I can still remember the pleasure of falling asleep in the open-fronted lean-to with the other children, wrapped in my blanket (no sleeping bags then), smelling the balsam, and listening to the murmur of the adults’ voices as they sat talking by the dying campfire.”

There is an allure to the repetition of rereading, submitting to the rhythms of a narrative, place, and characters you know well, and the familiar emotions they evoke.
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