Comparing the current health crisis to war is only one of many attempts to make sense of the times we’re living in, but it’s one that seems to have been a hit. It’s in the rhetoric of our world leaders and the widespread response to the virus at home, with the resurgence of campaigns like ‘dig for victory’ and our determination to protect the most vulnerable as was done for the evacuees. It’s by no means a perfect metaphor but I’m just sticking with it to point out that during World War I, librarians were stationed at US military camps and hospitals with the crucial role of dispensing books to the soldiers. They were intended to alleviate boredom and homesickness by distracting from the troubles at hand, and I would argue that books still play a similar role today.
Isolation does not immediately feel like an opportunity to catch up on your reading list. When lockdown was announced, it felt like there was a mass migration to Netflix in the hopes that ‘Tiger King’ might fill the void. We scheduled zoom calls and baked and watched TV but the time comes when it feels like you’ve completed Netflix and Youtube – I’ve seen all I want to see (at least for now) and that’s where reading came into its own in earnest for me. Books demand your attention in a way that more passive TV watching does not, and I think craving active participation in something is not a rare feeling to have at the moment.
Like the film Contagion, many books are starting to feel unexpectedly relevant in the light of the new context they find themselves in. I for one am looking at my copy of ‘I Am Pilgrim’, a thriller about the fight against the terrorist threat of a smallpox virus we don’t have a vaccine for, with fresh eyes. Mrs Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that follows a woman five years after the influenza pandemic in 1925, and the way she treats chores like going to the shops as a grand adventure seems oddly familiar at the moment (I found a great article on reading Mrs Dalloway in quarantine here, if you were interested: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-anxious-readers-under-quarantine-turn-to-virginia-woolfs-mrs-dalloway). One of my favourite places to get book recommendations is always the website ‘Five Books’ and they recently published an interview with the novelist Jenny Davidson where she recommends some “classics in the literature of pestilence”, including Albert Camus’ The Plague, which is probably the best-known novel on the subject of disease epidemics. Interestingly, it can also be read as an allegory for the spread of fascism. Of course, it’s not just dystopia that’s starting to feel relevant again: in my last English class before schools were closed, Mrs. Lord told us all that “these are Gothic times”. Reading tales of Gothic isolation while in isolation yourself is definitely one way to try and make sense of what’s going on – hearing about someone else being lonely too has the odd effect of making your loneliness feel like a group activity. If anyone’s interested in trying this out, I would wholeheartedly recommend Rebecca as a good book for the job and an all-round good book in general.
On the other hand, in a time when watching the news feels like all the Gothic horror you need in your life, you might find yourself craving a novel that’s aggressively optimistic: something to transport you away. Maybe that’s a beach read, or a heartwarming classic like Little Women. To me, when I look at the way breadmaking and extreme comfort dressing have become global trends, it currently feels like everyone’s craving the familiar and things that feel certain, or like home: that’s why I would definitely recommend making room on your reading list for re-reading an old favourite. Some people will never be fans of re-reading – you do already know what’s going to happen and that can be off-putting – but in times like these a bit of familiarity, not to mention something you already know you’re going to love, might be a good thing. My pick has been Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See, a slightly sad but very funny account of his travels in the hopes of encountering the world’s most endangered animals. A friend of mine is re-reading the Harry Potters, another good shout.
If you’re looking to discover a new favourite or are bored of the books you have at home, I’ve recently stumbled on an Instagram-based book club run by Florence “and the machine” Welch called @betweentwobooks . The author Fatima Bhutto’s Stay Home, Stay Reading initiative is also worth checking out on Instagram @fbhutto and on Twitter, the writer David Nicholls has been promoting books released during quarantine, whose authors may have lost out on events and business. His account is @DavidNWriter and he’s been using the hashtag #twitterbooklaunch for this. I know I’ve already mentioned it but the website https://fivebooks.com/ is a really brilliant one that I always find myself recommending. Many local bookshops are still open online and shipping books – if at all possible, supporting these small businesses over, say, Amazon, will help them to still be there when the lockdown is over. Good luck and happy reading!
Charlotte (Year 12)
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