Contributor: Rebecca Gower
In late March 2020, as the first lockdown began, my reading didn’t quite come to a halt, but it definitely slowed down dramatically; I went from getting through two or three books a week (I’d managed ten in both January and February) to struggling to finish one. It wasn’t the fault of the books I was trying; like almost everyone else I knew, I was having difficulties with both sleeping and concentration, and I couldn’t get into anything. (Additionally, in my case, work had abruptly becoming dizzingly busy, and I found it hard to switch off at the end of the day.)
However, this was (mercifully) a brief disruption to my normal routine. What kickstarted me back into reading was the Easter weekend: on Good Friday I woke up, went for a long run, and then settled down in my armchair with Chris Atkins’s A Bit of a Stretch, his memoir of his time in Wandsworth Prison. It was in every way perfect lockdown reading: fascinating, very funny indeed in places, occasionally rage-inducing, and the kind of thing that really put into perspective the fact that I could only leave my house for a few limited purposes. I loved it (I have since bought it for a lot of people), and over the next three days I followed the same routine—got up, did my permitted daily exercise, and then read a book cover-to-cover. And with that, I was away.
I wouldn’t say that my choice of reading material has changed enormously during the last year, though I did probably read more non-fiction for a while than I might otherwise have done (and when I look back at the books I’ve read since the start of the pandemic, several non-fiction ones stand out as having been particularly memorable). However, I do think that I’ve come to a greater appreciation of short stories. Previously, if I liked an author who wrote both novels and short stories, I had a tendency to think of the short stories as less worth spending time on than the novels, but I now realise that this attitude is nonsensical (and I have started actively to seek out collections of short stories: I find they are very good to read between novels or works of non-fiction).
There were moments, early on in the spring, when I thought that, if the bookshops were all closed, then I was damned if I was going to use Amazon (I have what I will describe as robust views on its place in the books market, and leave it at that), and that I was just going to have to address myself to all the unread books in my house (not to mention all the books that I want to reread). However, within a couple of weeks, my lovely local bookshop was taking phone orders and posting books out, which meant I resumed my old habits of buying more books than I could realistically expect to read. Not that I think it’s really so bad a thing to do: for one thing, I’d much rather do my best to support local businesses; for another, having too many books ranks pretty low on the scale of human vice.
I’ll take reading inspiration from anywhere: from reviews in the paper, mentions on the radio, references in something else I’m reading. A colleague introduced me quite recently to a wonderful podcast called Backlisted (“giving new life to old books”), which could sell me on the idea of reading pretty much anything. And there are certain publishers whose books I like so much that I’ll browse their websites periodically. One thing, though, that I have really missed in the periods when bookshops have been closed is the fact that I can no longer stumble across books by accident: some of my favourite books are ones which I have picked up at random because a bookseller has put them in the right place. You lose that chance of serendipity if you’re browsing on the Internet.
Anyway, I could recommend more than this, but these are probably the most purely enjoyable five books I’ve read in lockdown:
- A Bit of a Stretch, as mentioned above.
- Tessa Hadley, Everything Will Be Alright. She is an author I discovered right before the start of lockdown, and I’ve now read my way through almost all of her books, of which this is my favourite. I cannot understand why she is not better known, or more celebrated.
- Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat. Purchased early on in lockdown, but I put it to one side when it arrived because it looked rather dry. I could not have been more wrong: when I finally came to read it a few months later, it was just the most delightful surprise. It wasn’t just fascinating, but it was such fun to read.
- Katherine Heiny, Single, Carefree, Mellow. A book of short stories, all of which made me laugh out loud. I’ve given her novel (Standard Deviation) to many people, because it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the past couple of years, and this collection was wholly delightful too.
- Ferdinand Mount, Kiss Myself Goodbye. A book about the author’s aunt, a woman who, he discovered as he began to investigate, lied about pretty much every aspect of her life. It is the most astonishing thing I’ve read in a very long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.