BBC Radio 4 series Guide Books questions how literature can help us understand the human experience

In this episode, authors Sarah Perry and Sinéad Gleeson reflect on how their relationships with their bodies have changed over lockdown. 

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How might books help us to navigate everyday life? This is the question posed by Damian Barr’s Guide Books (15 June, 11.30am), which looks to authors and the literary world to try to understand different aspects of human experience – starting with our relationships with our bodies. Barr’s guests are the novelist Sarah Perry, the author of The Essex Serpent who has written powerfully about her own experiences of illness and injury in essays for the Guardian and the London Review of Books; and the writer Sinéad Gleeson, whose book Constellations: Reflections from Life blends the personal story of her history of chronic illness with examinations of the work of women artists similarly interested in the body, such as Frida Kahlo and Tracey Emin.

The two describe how their relationships with their bodies have changed over lockdown: Perry, freed by the knowledge that fewer people were looking at her, shaved her head, and, spurred on by the fact that her only priority was not to get sick, got into fitness to make her body “stronger”. Gleeson, whose book begins with the sentence, “The body is an afterthought,” observed her peers reckoning with their mortality and the risk of illness, as well as appreciating the “miraculousness” of their bodies, for the first time.

Barr, Perry and Gleeson discuss how a wide range of literature helped them come to a deeper understanding of society’s ­unequal view of human bodies. Both Perry and Gleeson cite the work of Maggie Nelson as being particularly influential on their writing, but also mentioned Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems, Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire and Edwin Morgan’s “In The Snack-Bar” and “One Cigarette”.

There are no grand pronouncements of books as medicine. Gleeson staunchly denies that writing her own memoir helped her “feel better” in any way. But the ways that literature can help us to recognise our own pain is quietly present. Unable to meet readers at book events, Perry has filled some of her time by volunteering at vaccination centres. “I can’t administer my novels in person,” she jokes, “so I’m administering AstraZeneca instead!”

Guide Books 
BBC Radio 4

[See also: A BBC Radio 4 documentary allows young people to speak directly about their experiences of the pandemic]

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 09 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?

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