After 13 weeks of holiday, isolation and furlough, I went back to work in the bookshop in the middle of June. It was nice to be back, nice to get out of the house for a bit and to see other people. To have conversations and a small part of normality back.
When the country went into lockdown the boyfriend joked that at least we would be OK for books. Our compulsive habit of buying books means the amount of unread ones we own already could probably sustain us for years.
So it was an odd thing back in March, when I suddenly found myself not wanting to read, despite having plenty of books to choose from even with the sudden closure of bookshops. While books are what I normally go to for comfort during tough times I found it difficult to read in the beginning, as nothing seemed to fit my mood, seemed appropriate or able to hold my attention.
Going into escapist mode with a feel-good book didn’t seem right with everything that was going on. It felt too frivolous with the amount of anxiety and upheaval taking place. At the same time I didn’t want any reminders of hardships or read books too close to home. I didn’t feel like picking up travel writing to take me away either, as they would only be reminders of the rare and longed-for trips I had planned with the boyfriend and my family that were suddenly cancelled.
But over the weeks and then months, I did find some books to distract me. Books that were able to soothe my nerves temporarily or take me away from the Groundhog Day experience of waking up to the same crisis. They didn’t only get me through that time but they also reignited my love for reading and acquiring books.
A Woman in the Polar Night – Christiane Ritter
Just before lockdown I flew home to Denmark with Ritter’s 1930s memoir of her time on Svalbard in my luggage. I could not have planned how much it would help me to read about a woman stuck in almost complete isolation just as the world started locking down. First in Denmark, while I was still there and then in England, as I got back. Instead of mirroring my own isolation and suddenly stalled life, Ritter’s memoir made me aware of the abundance I still had despite everything, of access to food and books, to company and our easy ways of keeping in touch with loved ones, to culture and plenty of museum documentaries to watch on iPlayer.
I did get a bit tired of reading the descriptions about the white emptiness of snow and ice by the end of it but it did make me grateful that at least I wasn’t stuck in a landscape like that.
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with historical fiction. It isn’t necessarily my go-to genre and can be a bit overdone but there are definitely some that have caught my attention. Pachinko have been sitting on my shelf for a long time and I thought now was a good time to read it.
In the light of lockdown it reminded of the waves of historical events that everyone goes through in life, the ups and downs, how everyone has their struggles. The story about Korean migrants’ historical struggle to settle in Japan was quite heartbreaking to read at times and gave me a different and new understanding of both countries. But it also made me able to travel away from my own life for a bit and into someone else’s, at least for a little while.
Moominpappa at Sea – Tove Jansson
I grew up watching the Moomin cartoons on tv and have been in love with Jansson’s writing since I read The Summer Book two years ago. I think children’s books can be a great comfort, not because problems don’t exist in them but because they get resolved in a way that is often reassuring, even when things go wrong. The descriptions of wild nature and failed attempts to control it was also quite soothing, the knowledge that nature continues and goes on doing its thing, even if we personally feel like we are standing still.
The Confession – Jessie Burton
I absolutely loved Burton’s The Muse, so I probably came to this with too much expectation. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first and found the language a bit “flowery” and overly decorated with metaphors, which really isn’t my thing and distracted my reading of it. But the more I read, the more I wanted to get to know the characters and see where they ended up and the split setting between moody London and sunny Los Angeles was just what I needed at the time to get away from my own days in the flat.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but I found the “solution” part of the book refreshingly different. Much more like what real life is actually like.
Come Rain or Come Shine – Kazuo Ishiguro
Last year Faber celebrated their 90th birthday by publishing a series of short stories in small individual books with newly designed covers. Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors, so when his story came out I immediately got it but saved it for just the right time. To read it during lockdown could not have been more perfect.
It reminded me of the existence of normal, everyday lives and activities, of travels and visits to friends, meals eaten at restaurants, tiresome work and relationships. Normal troubles. It was nice to have that back while I read the story.
Have you been able to find any comfort in books through all of this? I hope that you have and if not in books, then in something else that means something to you.