If, like me, you have little else to do at home than scroll mindlessly through Facebook, visit the nearby dairy farm, or stare longingly out of the window hoping this will all go away, then reading may be an excellent way to vicariously experience emotions that aren’t boredom and depression.
With that in mind, and secure in the knowledge that my English degree can be put to no better use, I have decided to compile a short lockdown reading list so that you, the reader, can also find solace in the soothing words of those wordsmiths more articulate and intelligent than me.
A book has been nominated for each of the following categories: Short Read, Long Read, Foreign Language, Science Fiction, Poetry, and Short Story Collection. The trick to maintaining motivation to read is diversity – I used to internally collapse at the mere mention of reading more than a book at a time. Now, however, the thought of not putting all 8 of my bookmarks to good use scares me and I cannot imagine any other reality.
As a last additional point, some of these picks will make reference to the virus which has so intrusively (albeit, temporarily) altered our lives. I can only apologise for this, after all, reading should be a distraction from reality. For worse or for better, our choices are, nevertheless, uncontrollably influenced by the very reality we wish to escape from. This truth is borne out in the identities of a few of my carefully compiled recommendations. So, without further ado, let us begin.
Short Read: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Though hosts of daffodils are sprouting all over my garden and the sun has finally decided to show his face, my first pick throws us back into the harsh, unforgiving winters of late-19th century New England.
The unnamed narrator, a visitor from the city, spends a winter in one of the many small farming communities nestled firmly in the deep Massachusetts snow. There he meets Ethan Frome, a striking character with a face scarred by an accident known to all in the village as “the smash-up”. The narrator, curiosity piqued, learns and relates to the reader the tale of Ethan Frome and a forbidden love triangle that comes unstuck – all set against a backdrop of intense winters, stoic characters and impossible choices.
Readers may, at this time, be especially drawn to the book for its portrayal of the loneliness of isolated communities, the misery of leaving behind friends and loved ones, and finally the redemptive power of love in even the toughest of times.
Long Read: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
I have recently “discovered” Indian Classical music. Nothing I have listened to so far in my short life comes close to the almost religious feeling I get when listening to Ravi Shankar on the sitar. The music bestows upon the listener the sensation that they could, without a care in the world, be playing hopscotch down a dusty New Delhi side-street while simultaneously being only one half-leap away from fully comprehending the entire universe.
Salman Rushdie’s (of The Satanic Verses and consequent fatwa fame) writing radiates the same universal mystique. None more so is that true than in Midnight’s Children, a book that won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers Prize on two further occasions. The novel begins in Kashmir, and sweeps along the grand narrative of Indian independence. Saleem Sinai, a child born on the exact stroke of independence’s midnight, is irreversibly bound to his country through a telepathic link and must weather the trials and tribulations that the gift brings.
Readers struggling with the doom and gloom of modern media may find it prudent to read this book and compare the luxury of their own lives to the injustice and, frequently, woe of Saleem’s. The book may also unchain and transport them to a world and ways of life vastly different to their own, in an indulgent 647 pages (at least, that’s how many pages my copy has) of escapism.
Foreign Language: Blindness by Jose Saramago (Translated by Giovanni Pontiero)
Readers may be surprised that a great work of literature has come from the same country as Cristiano Ronaldo – but it has. Indeed, tempted by the allure of visiting the bookshop in Porto said to be the inspiration behind Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, I picked up a copy of Blindness so as to dip my toe into the Portuguese cultural scene. I was not disappointed.
One day, as he is driving, a man whose name is irrelevant goes well-and-truly pitch-black blind. The case is a peculiar one, the doctor treating him notes, and gets rather more so when he too loses completely his ocular function. Soon, like a contagious disease, blindness settles in all who catch it, leading the government to transport the unfortunate patients into a large mental asylum where law and order carry little weight with the recently organised asylum gangs. At last, with rumours of a global pandemic rife, a fire destroys the asylum and the inmates escape, leading to the destruction of society as the reader and characters know it. Told in a breathless, hurried style, Blindness was noted specifically by the committee that awarded Saramago the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Could readers draw parallels between Blindness and modern attempts to halt pandemics? Surely not, and, anyway, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Nevertheless, the novel dips into a genre familiar to Netflix subscribers and graphic novel enthusiasts – the apocalypse is only one blinding blink away.
Science Fiction: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Have you ever seen a Triffid? No? Well, that’s because, contrary to the belief of those who play The Simpsons: Tapped Out, they are completely fictional. That is not to say, however, that the idea of them is any less terrifying. Should those previously mentioned daffodils outside my window suddenly grow to the size of two tip-to-toe Kylie Minogues, lash out at me with venomous whip-tongues and proceed to consume my decomposing body, I would probably provide the predator plants with some perfectly good fertiliser right there on the spot.
The Day of the Triffids, written in the post-war atmosphere of biological weaponry fear, tells the tale of Bill Masen, a scientist wrapped up in hospital recovering from a Triffid sting. After a meteor shower that Mr Masen doesn’t witness, the population goes blind, and are forced to deal with a Triffid invasion. The plants seem, according to Bill, to have been released by the USSR, and swiftly take over London. Bill falls in love with a novelist called Josella Playton, and spends the vast majority of the book attempting to find her whilst avoiding murderous triffids and socialist survival schemes.
There isn’t much in this novel about threats to world security originating from Left-leaning nations hell-bent on world domination that I can recommend to readers as being relatable. I can confirm, though, that The Day of the Triffids is an enjoyable romp through the terror-strewn Home Counties.
Poetry: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery
I, more than anyone, am aware that poetry is largely viewed by people as a fairly artistic and pretentious genre, and not totally accessible to the general reader. With that in mind, I thought I would go for all-out poetic nonsense, and have chosen John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
And honestly, I have no idea what these poems are about. I don’t know what the “deeper meaning” is in any of them. John Ashbery’s poetry, according to the Poetry Foundation, ‘challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favour of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness.’ Wow. I don’t have the foggiest what this means, but it sounds important. A bit like my personal favourite from the collection, Grand Galop, which is a poem apparently concerned with finding meaning in life.
Readers may be left as clueless as me, but they might also find a speck of gold-dust amongst the sands of incomprehension that they can cling to and savour forever. Gold dust is, I hear, in short supply these days. And if not, they can at least enjoy this line, written by the American John Ashbery’s own hand: ‘[The English] are so clever about some things/Probably smarter generally than we are’. So that’s something.
Short Story Collection: If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino (Translated by William Weaver)
Here is the spanner in the works. If on a winter’s night a traveller is not a short story collection. I could have put it in the Short Read section or the Foreign Language section, and dropped Chekhov’s Ward No.6 & Other Stories in this slot (Ariadna being my particular recommendation), but for the purposes of being controversial, I have selected Calvino’s masterpiece.
In a way, If on a winter’s night a traveller is a collection of short stories. The narrative begins with you, yes, you – the reader. You have ventured to the bookstore to pick up Italo Calvino’s latest release but, once there, meet a girl, Ludmilla, who you fall in love with. On returning home, the book is not the one you expected as there has been a misprint, and the rest of the novel alternates between chapters where you think you have finally found Calvino’s book, and chapters that are clearly not Calvino’s book. The latter of these chapters differ wildly, and feature multitudes of characters from different settings and genres. Progressing through the pages is like walking through a Hollywood studio. To your left is a rainy station platform, ahead of you a Japanese garden, to your right a Medieval market. There is something breathtaking and mind-boggling on every page from beginning to end. Have you just read If on a winter’s night a traveller, or have you picked up a wild mess of confused chapters? One thing is for certain. You have followed the beautiful and magnetic Ludmilla through chapter after chapter, along line after line, and in and out of each inked word.
I recommend If on a winter’s night a traveller to any who say they have fallen out of love with reading. If nothing else, it is a homage to the book, and proves that a collection of bound pages can entertain regardless of what is inside. The novel is crafted so playfully and lovingly that you will wish it never ended, and, in a way, it doesn’t, because reading doesn’t. Readers may, should they want to, be reminded that there are many books out there – there will be one perfect for you.