My experience during the first lockdown reminded me a lot of a classic episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone

Contributor: David Chapman

Have you read more or less during lockdown, or much the same as usual?

Overall, I have read less than usual during the last year of on and off lockdowns. My experience during the first lockdown reminded me a lot of a classic episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. In ‘Time enough at last’ Burgess Meredith plays a bookish bank clerk who is continually frustrated whenever he tries to spend some quality time with a book. In the manner of The Twilight Zone he finds himself the only survivor of an apocalyptic nuclear war. Luckily the local public library also survives untouched, so our hero believes he will at last have all the time he wants to read, however, in the final twist he accidentally shatters his glasses, rendering him completely unable to see the print. 

At the start of the first national lockdown (almost a year ago), I selfishly and short-sightedly viewed the situation as an opportunity to get some reading done in time that would ordinarily have been taken up by work or social obligations that now could not go ahead. I managed to borrow a few hefty, improving works of literature from the University Library before we closed down indefinitely and for the first few weeks things went as I had planned. With nowhere to go and little to do, I was able to spend more time reading than I had in years. Unfortunately, like the character in The Twilight Zone, all too soon I found myself suddenly unable to read. This was not due to broken glasses, but a purely psychological difficulty. I could read work emails, I could read twitter, I could read the back of a cereal packet, but anything that required sustained attention or consideration on my part was out of the question. I do not know exactly what the cause was. I think in part a lack of physical exercise and fresh air contributed, as did the way working from home blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Whatever the case, over the summer, when I was able to spend more time outdoors and physically return to work at the Library, my mood improved and my ability to concentrate on reading did gradually return.

Has lockdown affected your choice of reading material?

Have you switched from your normal genre? Eg started reading poetry, short stories, non fiction, drama?

When I did start reading again, I tried to pick books that I was confident I would be able to finish because I wanted to avoid another bout where I stopped reading altogether. For that reason I tended toward short novels or short story collections. I also read more genre fiction and I was less likely to try books with challenging writing. 

My reading during this time was almost all by authors I was already familiar with. The only exception to this was Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was recommended to me by some friends during the period over the summer when it was extremely fashionable. 

I have not been influenced to read any books about pandemics. I have never found plagues to be a particularly interesting topic and living through one has only added to my belief that they are fundamentally quite dull. However, there has been a lasting change in my attitude to reading and choice of reading material.   

Have you been listening to audiobooks rather than reading? If so, does listening add something to your experience of the book that you wouldn’t get by reading it yourself?

I have made a few attempts at listening to audiobooks, but I find it very difficult to just sit back and listen. Having my hands free means that I am always tempted to start doing something else at the same time and the audiobooks struggle to keep my attention. Sometimes if I am enjoying the story, but having difficulty concentrating I will just get the print copy and read that instead. 

Can you recommend up to 5 books/audiobooks that you have enjoyed during lockdown?

I don’t know If I’ve read enough over the last year to recommend 5 whole books, but 2 which I am reading right now are:

The Master and Margarita by Michael Bulgakov (translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor). I am reading this as part of a book group where we read and discuss 3 chapters a week. I find that the social component and the deadline combined with the relatively small amount of material to get through has been really helpful in motivating me to read. It doesn’t hurt that it is also a wonderfully well written book.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. This is a non-fiction account of a journey the author took in the Himalayas with the zoologist George Schaller in search of the titular big cat. It’s an a really vivid and engaging travelogue, so be aware that if you start reading it, you may end up wanting to drop everything and head for Nepal yourself.  

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