Bookmarks: Read these and be immune to boredom while on quarantine
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
As health authorities around the world urge their citizens to self-isolate in a bid to tackle the coronavirus crisis, newspapers have been advising their readers on how to while away the days, if not weeks, they will spend cooped up indoors. Some have suggested this could be an ideal time to settle down in front of the TV with those big box sets, like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. More to our remit, though, several newspapers and media platforms have published extensive “quarantine reading lists” for the more bookish among us.
As you can imagine, most contributors to these round-ups have cheerily rattled off the titles of whatever happens to be piling up on their bedside tables. Which begs the question: is there a difference between, let’s just say, a holiday reading list and what you’d want to read while in quarantine?
There have, however, been attempts to get with the programme, as it were, and comply with the theme. There have been suggestions, for example, that this should not be time wasted as if on a sunny island beach, and that forced withdrawal from society could be an opportunity to tackle something worthy and weighty.
In one of several Guardian stories advising readers on how to cope with isolation was a suggestion from social historian Rachel Cooke, author of Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties (Virago), that the housebound tackle The Zoo of the New: A Book of Exceptional Poems from Sappho to Paul Muldoon (Particular Books), a “life-enhancing anthology”, according to the Irish Times.
“Such an anxious moment,” Cooke wrote, “surely calls for the consolations of poetry.
“What you need is this fat anthology, in which Rosemary Tonks nestles up to Tennyson, and Sappho sits in close proximity to Seamus Heaney. Or what about The Prelude, Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem? Even if you can’t leave the house, its hundreds of pages will transport you swiftly and elegantly to the Lakeland fells – and, perhaps, to the happier times of your own childhood.”
Cooke also suggested Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (Phoenix), edited by Robert Rhodes James, would make for ideal reading as these journals by a snobbish Tory politician are not only “witty, gossipy and completely engrossing”, but they also cover the Blitz and, “as a result, come with a built-in sense of perspective. These bad times, like other bad times before them, will surely pass.” That’s the spirit. Failing which, there was always George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “This,” Cooke said, “is a book so capacious and wise it cannot fail to suit a period of quarantine.”
Across the ideological divide, the Financial Times felt that one might be too weakened to turn the page and instead suggested some “immersive” audiobooks to pass the days. One of them was The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate), the third instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy. Narrated by the actor Ben Miles, it clocks in at 38 hours and 11 minutes, which is shorter than the average working week.
Longer still, at 45 hours and 34 minutes, is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press), in which an Ohio housewife attempts to bridge the gaps between reality and the “torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America”. She frets about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of happy couples, weapons of mass destruction and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg, among other things. Many other things.
Personally, I felt that the Canadian novelist Daniel Kalla’s choice of books for the Covid-19 reading lists, for Toronto’s Globe & Mail, to be a bit more interesting than most – if only because Kalla, an ER doctor, appears to be a master of the “plague thriller”, a terrifying genre he’s made his own. How, for example, is this for prescience? Kalla’s 2005 novel, Pandemic (Forge Books), the second in his series featuring infectious disease specialist Dr Noah Haldane, concerns a “deadly new virus”, the Gansu Flu, which suddenly appears in rural China and kills one in every four of its victims …
Anyway, Kalla joked that he’d want to read something like Pandemic or his latest novel, We All Fall Down (Simon & Schuster), about a present-day reappearance of the Black Death, “because they have happy endings and I’m not sure we’re headed for one [with the present crisis]”, before adding: “Seriously, though, I’ve been reading Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (Windmill Books), which is a lovely bit of romantic escapism, a perfect getaway from present-day problems. It’s about a Russian aristocrat, a count who gets caught up in the Russian Revolution and is under house arrest, basically imprisoned in this somewhat declining hotel in the middle of Moscow, not allowed to leave for years and years, watching the world from within. Not a quarantine, but a different form of imprisonment.”
There was no mention, oddly, in any of these lists of Laura Spinney’s recent acclaimed history, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (Vintage). But then perhaps it was just too scary for inclusion.
The Spanish flu was the greatest human disaster not only of the 20th century but perhaps in all of recorded history, with a possible death toll as high as 100-million people. (In SA it killed more than 500,000 people.) It was catastrophic – and yet it exists largely in popular conception as a footnote to WWI.
In Pale Rider, Spinney recounts the story of this “overlooked” pandemic, tracing its path around the world and showing it was shaped by the interaction of a virus and the humans it encountered; and how this devastating natural experiment put both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of humans to the test. Then, as will perhaps be the case now, the virus shaped the world by disrupting and often permanently altering global politics and international trade and commerce.
The New York Times included Albert Camus’s The Plague (Penguin Modern Classics) in its list of recommended quarantine fiction.
It is one of several books about pandemics whose global sales have soared as the coronavirus spread. It recounts the spread of a disease through an Algerian town in lockdown, and in the year since its publication in 1947 has been interpreted as a critique of the Nazi occupation of France during World War 2 and is regarded as a leading example of existential literature. At the other end of the spectrum, the NYT suggested we may want to bunk down with The Stand (Hodder & Stoughton) by Stephen King, a 1,200-page whopper about a computer error unleashing an influenza strain that wipes out 99% of the world’s population.
It’s all very grim, and given the circumstances, where is the comedy? Why not settle down with a PG Wodehouse collection or two? There are five Jeeves omnibuses alone, but What Ho! The Best of Wodehouse (Arrow) is as good a places as any to start. Light, frothy fun while all about is the plague.
On to other dangers – and a new word: “sitopia”, which means “food place”, from the Greek sitos and topos, and it describes a world, according to the British architect and academic Carolyn Steel, where everything from our environment to our societies to our bodies has been affected by our relationship with food. In her new work, Sitopia: How Food Can Save the Planet (Chatto), she sees food as “by far the most powerful medium available to us for thinking and acting together to change the world for the better”.
The problem, though, with food is that while its influence may be obvious, we often don’t think about it too much. Doing so, Steel suggests, makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to know, for example, how exactly our meat arrives on our tables and the industrial-strength cruelty involved in that process, and we don’t question the exploitation of labourers who farm the produce in our supermarkets, or the effects of the deforestation and drought that are the by-products of these vast agricultural projects, or how our addiction to processed foods is fuelling an obesity crisis.
In short, we don’t value what we eat. “Cheap food,” Steel writes, “is an oxymoron.” Low prices hide the costs of pollution, ecological destruction and poverty. Moreover, she argues that we have lost a “culinary heritage” and, at the heart of her book, is a call to rediscover the way food binds us together and in so doing, find ways to live together.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“If you started killing a cat, you’ve taken it too far.” – Nick Holmes, vocalist with Swedish death metal super group Bloodbath, quoted in Heavy: How Metal Changes the Way We See the World by Dan Franklin (Constable)