The announcement of a second lockdown in the UK has led me to return to books as a form of escapism. The forced closure of pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms and the restrictions on socialising leaves us with limited options for entertaining ourselves this winter.
2020 has undoubtedly been a strange time for everyone. But reading can provide a useful escape from the endless news cycle, and general fears about the pandemic. (It may be best to stay away from dystopian fiction for the minute).
Readers across Britain entered the first lockdown, with a desire to spend more time reading. The Guardian reported in March 2020 that ‘Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels’.
I noticed I read in intense bursts in the first lockdown in March, and I experienced a need to excessively consume culture of all forms. Books offered me an alternative to the mundanity of lockdown life.
The act of reading is a luxury and I feel grateful to have the time to pursue it. If you find yourself with spare time over lockdown please consider reading as an important act of self-care.
I wanted to share the books that stayed with me during the first lockdown. I chatted to Josh and Aileen (who also write for the books section) to find out their recommendations.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottesa Moshfegh
I was sold on the premise of the title of this novel during lockdown as I tried to use the time for some ‘Rest and Relaxation’ myself. Ottesa Moshfegh darkly satirizes wellness culture and our fascination with sleep in her novel. The unnamed protagonist desires to sleep for a year, and so pops an extreme amount of sleeping pills and various forms of medication.
New York and the glamour of city life is constantly romanticised in TV, films and books. Shows like Gossip Girl and Sex in the City prove this point. Ottesa Moshfegh takes the familiar trope of the white, socialite upper-class woman, and uses it to turn her protagonist into an anti-hero in her novel.
I read the novel as a satire directed at the socialite world and consumer culture. The protagonist of the novel is unlikeable, coarse and a bit of a shit friend to Reza. Moshfegh allows her protagonist to be flawed, and so for that very reason creates a feminist portrayal of character which I found refreshing.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
I finally got round to reading Love in the Time of Cholera during the first lockdown. I had left it to gather dust on my bookshelves for far too long. Márquez’s novel is a heartbreaking account of enduring love, temporality, and the outbreak of the cholera epidemic on the Caribbean coast.
The novel follows the interconnected lives of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. Marquez maps their complicated love story over several decades. Ariza and Daza share a teenage romance, but then go their separate ways only to reconnect half a century later.
I was struck with some of the language and how relevant it felt in 2020. Márquez describes a ‘quarantine’ episode which took place on a ship after a cholera outbreak onboard. I don’t think I’d ever considered the words quarantine, lockdown, pandemic or epidemic in such depth until 2020.
The World of Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
I had two different modes during lockdown, and the first was being utterly unable to sustain concentration on anything. To stop this impacting my reading I turned to short stories; ones that I knew I could draw comfort from.
For this I turned to Jeeves and Wooster, who never fail to make me laugh. The stories are lighthearted, just the right length, and with familiar comforting characters. The World of Jeeves is a big omnibus edition, and a delightful place to start if you’ve never read any Wodehouse stories before, or if they’re old favourites.
PG Wodehouse advises his reader in how to go about approaching the volume in his introduction: ‘Take it easy. Spread it out. Assimilate it little by little’. He even offers a specimen day menu of reading alongside meals – what could be a better way to read in lockdown?
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
My second mode of lockdown was an intense desire to be very distracted, submerged in a project that would last long enough that it wouldn’t make time feel like it was going so slowly. I looked towards long books.
For this I turned to Donna Tartt. The Goldfinch is one of my favourite books, and so I had high hopes for The Little Friend. Though not quite so long as Tartt’s more recent novel, The Little Friend still makes a pretty good door stop.
In the novel, 12 year old Harriet attempts to find out what happened to her brother Robin when she was a baby. And so the book is in part a coming of age story, in part a mystery, but mostly it defies classification, with long winding sections with snakes and swimming pools that take a reader down a series of dead ends. Harriet’s world is delightfully easy to get lost in.
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Without conferring, as they say on University Challenge, I also chose P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves Stories as my first lockdown recommendation, and for much the same reasons as Aileen. The Inimitable Jeeves is the first in the series, although if you’re brave you should punt for the whole anthology!
Bertie Wooster and his servant Jeeves are one of literature’s most imperishable duos. Wooster is a London gentleman, a man about town, one of the “idle rich”. In each short story, our favourite chinless idiot is embroiled in some scheme or other, from which he needs to be extricated by the ever-reliable Jeeves. It helps that Jeeves is a classically educated, omniscient genius.
The book is laugh-out-loud funny, and cannot fail to put a smile on your face.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Second, I’ve chosen Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. This classic dystopian tale is set in the near future, where peace and prosperity has been achieved by mass entertainment, genetic engineering, and universal stultification. Written (remarkably) in the 1930s, Huxley’s vision of Hell perhaps comes closer than any other to getting modern society right. A new TV adaptation was recently released too, which is pretty good, so you can give that a go afterwards!
Please check out each of the books available on the Blackwell’s website or at Bookshop.org because Jeff Bezos doesn’t need anymore of your money. If you’re after further reading inspiration, have a look at the list we compiled in October for Black History Month.
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