The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

8 Comments

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8 Responses to The Best Books for … a lockdown

  1. Christine A

    Great post Caroline. Thanks a lot. Interesting that you had put Girl, Woman, Other down in the first instance – when we did it for our reading group several of us found it took a lot of getting into, the structure didn’t help ! – but worth it in the end.
    As a great reader of comfort reads I applaud your choice and would add Middlemarch. Once you’ve read them you can pick and choose where you want to dip in and be uplifted by the sheer beauty of the writing.
    Can I add one to the list? – it’s non-fiction and not my usual at all – well-researched historical account of the daughters of Edward I – gentle feminist slant highlighting the Disneyfication of the concept of princess – Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments Christine. So pleased you took time to engage with it. Not sure why I didnt read further with Girl, Woman, Other but sometimes that’s how it goes. I am certainly looking forward to picking it up again.
      I had not thought of Middlemarch as a comfort read. I read it for its historical themes when I was doing a history degree in the early 70s. I have enjoyed it since. Perhaps itis time for a reread!
      Your recommendation sounds interesting too.
      Cme again and leave another comment soon.

  2. I loved ‘Stoner’ – and have pinned about my writing desk a quote from the book which, for me, exemplifies the perfection of Williams’ writing:

    ‘In his 43rd year, William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him; that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another.’

    • Caroline

      I like what you have picked out from Stoner as a quote to have in your sighline. Very wise, and I suspect my understanding is cerebral not whole hearted.
      Thanks.

  3. I would always recommend, and probably have all over the place, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” as perfect comfort reading. It’s such a feel-good book. Oddly, I’d also recommend Jose Saramago’s “Death at Intervals” which is surreal, a little darker and has a wonderful ending!

    • Caroline

      Nice addition. Miss Pettigrew is so clearly each of her readers, and yet she comes through. Love it!
      I dont know Saramago. Where should I start?

  4. I’m tired of all those curated lists too. I wonder how many people who said this was a good time to read Proust ever got very far before they went in search of an Agatha Christie? My books for lockdown are chosen entirely at random – right now I have the Hilary Mantel being read very slowly, have just started Actress by Anne Enright and am listening to Anthony Trollope while I garden…..

    • Caroline

      I do so agree with you. My reading choices have not changed. I am just about to re-start Bernardino Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. I’ve just read a book for my book group meeting on Wednesday (on-line of course) and enjoy seeing what others are recommending.
      Caroline

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