Breath of the Wild art.

The comfort of the familiar

When I was a child, there were a few books that I read over and over again, sometimes in back-to-back readings.

My copy of 101 Dalmatians – one of the very few books that I actually owned back then – has been read so much that it’s held together with garish blue tape. There was a particular Famous Five book that I loved to the extent that I would borrow it from the library multiple times, and read it three or more times during a single loan period. I would flick to certain stories in The Puffin Book of Animal Stories over and over, then feel guilty about not reading the others, so I would end up just reading the whole thing anyway.

As I got older, this hankering for what was loved and familiar extended to video games, music and films. When I finally got to the end of my first unforgettable playthrough of Ocarina of Time, I went straight to the title screen and started again. There was a period when I was a child when we had *cough* not-quite-legit *cough* cable at home, and there were a few ‘unlocked’ pay TV channels that had the same films playing on a loop. I would sit down in front of the TV and watch the ones I enjoyed most over and over, endlessly. When I started building my own DVD collection, it was even easier (and more legal) to sit through my favourite films again and again. I used to listen to my favourite records over and over until I got sick of them, then went back for more a few weeks later.

I fell out of this habit as I entered my thirties – I thought that there were just so many things to read/play/watch/listen to, it seemed less justifiable to go through all of the same experiences that I’d had so many times before. I’ve always made an exception for my very favourite books, but everything else just fell away.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all of a sudden all I’ve wanted to do is reach for the familiar, like a young child’s worn and slightly stained comfort blanket.

I went back to Stardew Valley and started another game of growing crops and tending to animals, despite not exhausting my original save file. I bought Breath of the Wild on the Switch (despite already playing it to death on the Wii U) and am now several hours into another playthrough of it.

I’ve bought a lot of books during lockdown in an effort to support my favourite bookshops, but I’ve been getting through them at a slower pace than normal, and keep wondering whether it’s too soon to re-read my Robin Hobb books again (I finished my last read-through of all 16 of them last September, having begun in early 2018).

Last weekend, I put on Sleepless in Seattle for the first time in years – my ultimate comfort watch. A few days ago, I started idly looking up prices for the DVD boxset of Fringe, which I binged on when it was on Netflix back in 2015.

The album listening parties run by Tim Burgess on Twitter have also sent me back in time by featuring old favourites that I hadn’t listened to in years (hello Lost Souls and The Hour of Bewilderbeast), prompting me to seek out more lost gems in my collection.

My head knows that I have 100+ books to read, several games that I need to finish (or even start), and a huge Netflix to-watch list. But my heart just wants to return to the things that I know I love.

It’s not just me. There have been a few surveys and articles confirming that a lot of us are turning to old cultural favourites during lockdown, as well as looking at old photos to summon up the memories of happier days. Nostalgia can have a powerful hold over people at the best of times, but its grip seems vice-like in this current strange period.

One thing I didn’t know about nostalgia is that, in the early 17th century, it was originally deemed an illness with physical symptoms that Swiss soldiers went through when they were fighting abroad and longed for the hills of their alpine home. I recently read Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love, in which she touches on this when looking back at the period covered by the book:

In the run-up to my thirtieth, my twenties became my alpine dreamland. My twenties were my home, somewhere I knew and felt comfortable. In my rational mind, I was totally aware that most of it had been fraught… but I was overcome with the sickness of nostalgia.

I think my nostalgia comes from a similar place. Although I’m more used to the current situation now than I was at the beginning of lockdown, and I know full well that the pre-COVID world was far from perfect, I still want to flee from the whole thing to somewhere that I know. Whether this is a good thing or not, I’m still not sure.

I recently banned myself from Twitter and news websites for a couple of weeks because I could feel the constant stream of bad news digging into my brain and sowing the seeds of anxiety. While it was helpful to cocoon myself away from the real world for a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a different kind of anxiety that by blocking out the news and refusing to engage with everything outside of my bubble, I was being selfish – especially at a time when protests are erupting around the world to demonstrate against the murder of black people. Wasn’t I being a bad ally by not keeping up to date on everything that was happening? How could I contribute to the fight against racism when I didn’t know what was going on around me?

I sometimes feel like that about my recent trips down memory lane. What’s the point of going back in time when there are writers, directors, actors, musicians and games developers putting out new works that are more relevant to the modern era? (Although I’m quite thankful that there aren’t yet any COVID-themed novels or TV shows to plough through!). How can I hope to develop my understanding of the world when I’m not engaging with it, especially as someone who hopes to write a novel one day?

Perhaps this way of dealing with lockdown is actually good for me. Perhaps, as the rules around lockdown ease (albeit in typically chaotic fashion) and we gradually re-emerge into the new world that’s appeared over the course of this strange spring and summer, I’ll be mentally stronger to deal with whatever new events are going to come our way. We’ll see, won’t we?

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