If anything as a reader I’ve reverted to type and to what feels safe

Contributor: Helen Jeffries

At the start of lockdown I had imagined I would read more, and I may actually have done, but it also doesn’t feel like I’m reading as much as I would like to.  Sometimes I just can’t concentrate and I’ve also lost all the time I would otherwise have spent on tubes and buses reading.  Because I’m an introvert for whom reading quietly by myself is usually heaven, lockdown suited me very well in many ways.  But one can have too much of even the best things and I guess as time has gone on lockdown has ground me down.  

I’m definitely reading different things now.  As the pandemic has gone on, I’ve found I can’t face reading anything sad as my emotions seem to have become amplified.  So all of those serious and important novels on the “to read” pile are getting screened for “does anything I don’t feel emotionally up to happen in it” and generally set aside.  Significant novels about the experience of being Black and British?  Not until the world perks up; Bernadine Evaristo I’m looking at you.

At the start of the pandemic I bought and read The Great Mortality about the Black Death by John Kelly.  It’s very good, but it’s not particularly cheery.  As evidence I offer the quote: ‘The bodies were sparsely covered that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured them…And believing it to be the end of the world, no one wept for the dead, for all expected to die’, which the good people at Amazon have chosen to introduce the book description.

If anything as a reader I’ve reverted to type and to what feels safe.  In the early days of the pandemic I was finishing off things I’d started reading already – such as, for example, Ulysses(!) because it was my project to get it read in 2020, which I did.  But as time went on I went back to the “old friend” books, to things I knew wouldn’t contain any nasty surprises, and to history (because one knows what’s going to happen at the end).  I’m autistic which means that predictability is a major part of how I make myself feel secure.  So novels that are rollercoasters of emotions are inherently stressful and I don’t want the stress of not knowing what will happen to the characters.  I’ve been reading less for education or to improve my mind (which I would do usually) and more for comfort and escapism.  Literary comfort food (known novels) and nice reassuring carbs (history) have been the way to go.  

The dilemma “how do I select books that I want” does not seem ever to have caused me any problems even in the absence of open bookshops.  Since early 2020 though I’ve really got into supporting independent bookshops online.  For example about a year ago there was a huge reaction on Twitter when the Petersfield Bookshop said they hadn’t sold a book all day and might have to close.  Neil Gaiman retweeted the Tweet and suddenly they had more orders than they could ship and happily they continue to flourish today.  I strongly recommend following them on Twitter for odd little book nuggets.  I also love Top Hat & Tales in Faversham run by the wonderful Rachel.  She curates her collection so carefully that there is seldom a book in her shop (or on her website) that I wouldn’t want.  So obviously I end up buying them.

I keep meaning to embark on my backed up “to read” pile but in all honesty that requires an effort of will for which I don’t have the energy.  Somehow it’s easier to buy a book and read it straight away.  Once something’s been put off once, it’s easier to put it off again. Probably because of my autism I have an absolute horror of leaving a book unfinished.  Which is perhaps why starting a new and unknown book requires an effort of will – it’s a big commitment that the end will be reached in due course.  If I haven’t finished a book it plagues me in the back of my mind – there’s a doorstop sized book called Quicksilver that I started more than ten years ago and haven’t (yet) finished and it preys upon my mind…

Being my version of autistic (not all autistic people are alike by any means), I’m not really into audio books because my main way of thinking is visual.  You might have encountered Thinking in Pictures by the famous autistic writer Temple Grandin, and that’s certainly how I think so it’s much easier to process things that I’ve seen rather than things I’ve heard.  That’s probably why books appeal to me so much – it’s a whole world in your hand and the only sense you need to process it is sight.

My top picks for lockdown reading?  Well I’d go for:

  • Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox – a very gratifying sort of modern Barchester Chronicles
  • Red Plenty by Francis Spufford – the most illuminating book about Soviet Russia I have ever read
  • Music to Eat Cake By by Lev Parikian – a glorious collection of essays which resulted when the author (unwisely) allowed his readers to pick the subjects
  • Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel – a polemic on how antisemitism has been allowed to persist that just landed on my doormat and which I already love, plus it’s short
  • The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel.  From the same stable as the Rivers of London sequence but with records, and cats, and JAZZ.



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