I’ve got a bookcase of the kind people sit in front of on Zoom calls in an attempt to look sage; it heaves and threatens to give way. These past few months, however, it has become a source of shame.
In the first week of lockdown, imagining I might spend it curled in a window seat (which I don’t have) reading, rather than blankly watching all 16 series of Grey’s Anatomy, I ordered no small number of novels. Some were recent releases: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and – drawn as I am, it seems, by floral covers – The Familiars by Stacey Halls; others, books I feel I really ought to have read before I did a literature degree: Middlemarch, As I Lay Dying.
Now, propped in front of the spines of better-thumbed novels for want of space, they stare at me accusingly. I haven’t made it past the first 50 pages of a single one. I so want to be transported somewhere, anywhere but here, but here will not let me go. I find I have little patience for make-believe and the false assurance of neat endings. Even the childhood comforts of Harry Potter and Little Women can’t hold my distracted mind; their charms have faded.
Instead I’ve turned to non-fiction – the grislier the better. It started with the very topical Spillover by David Quammen. I learned just how many human illnesses are, in fact, animal ones (anthrax, dengue fever, Zika and likely HIV/Aids); and of the sleuthing involved in their study, of tracking dying chimpanzees, deep in the jungle; and that species of bats make up 25 per cent of all mammals. Next was The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. This was a language I could understand, a concern I could justify.
Then I reached for In Extremis, Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of the late war correspondent Marie Colvin, and for Our Bodies, Their Battlefield by Christina Lamb (my copy snatched from the New Statesman books cupboard on our last day in the office), on the unique ways women suffer in war. I reread Jihad Academy by Nicolas Hénin, a French journalist who was captured by Isis in 2013, and revisited Unnatural Causes, on the career of the forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd. (You’ll notice there is a lot of rereading here, wasting time on a book I don’t enjoy might just be one suffering too far.) A dose of serial murder rounded things off nicely, with the books of the criminal profiler John E Douglas, on which the TV series Mindhunter is based. Each was more or differently terrible than our present reality. They led me to think about many of the things that coronavirus has forced upon us: the corporeal, life’s precariousness, the organs and tendons of our bodies.
What little fiction I have read has been distinctly virus-y: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – in which a deadly pandemic leads to the collapse of the global order and a band of survivors travels between settlements performing Shakespeare – and The End of October by Lawrence Wright, the eerily timed “thriller that predicted it all”. You might imagine them to be rather too close to home, but I found both oddly easy to read – partly because this pandemic is not as bad as those they imagine. Our world in 2021 will, I hope, be a little less 28 Days Later than Mandel’s tale, while in Wright’s, with people abandoned to their basest instincts (“All the virtues… are just social constructs, patches to cover the naked barbarism that is at our core”), no one claps for the NHS.
We often think of comfort reading as being familiar, formulaic, bucolic, twee; even the crime classics – Agatha Christie, PD James – begin with murder but are tied up with well-ordered resolutions. I have found, however, some strange reassurance in the fear, the macabre, the relentlessness of it all. In books that don’t try to remove you from reality but sit with you in it; that seem to say, yes, isn’t it awful.
My grandmother speaks of how many moments in her lifetime it seemed the world might end, and yet it didn’t. There is something comforting about that rhythm: terrible things have happened before, and will happen again. I have been caught up by fiction before, and will be again.
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation