Themed readings may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for literary companions during these socially isolated times, it no longer feels like such bad taste to finally publish the Coronavirus Lockdown Reading List I’ve been mulling over since last month (so many years ago).
I read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ last summer. Even under normal conditions it’s a book to make you paranoid about every cough or fever. In the tour-de-force opening section, a deadly, highly-contagious flu virus ravages society, spreading swiftly and uncontrollably until the whole world seems consumed. The book (hopefully) loses some of its resonance in the aftermath sections, but if you like to keep your escapism close to home, this may be the perfect time to get started with King’s 1970s doorstop.
For something a bit more contemplative, ‘The Magic Mountain’, follows an individual though luxurious isolation in an early twentieth-century TB sanatorium. Think lots of big dinners, long naps and absolutely no responsibilities. Our hero is kept busy by musing on life and through being a metaphor for modern man and society. I have a huge fondness for this book (you can read a more detailed review here) and recommend it for some very different, though still tenuously themed, lockdown reading.
Oryx and Crake takes us into speculative fiction. In 2003, Atwood imagined a world struck down by disease and other catastrophes. The first novel of her MaddAddam trilogy looks both into the causes and the aftermath of the ultimate tragedy. Importantly for its place on this list, it also focuses on an isolated protagonist stuck far away from the familiar world and with only the faintest hope of companionship. If you find it works as literary escapism for the current situation, you can look forward to extending your stay in Atwood’s dystopia with ‘The Year of the Flood’ and ‘MaddAddam.’
For a look at institutionalization and paranoia about isolation from society, the enduring classic is ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The novel’s characters have to navigate fear of the outside world with difficulties when living under lockdown. If you sympathise, this may be the book to help you explore any feeling of impotence and anger, both at individuals and with those who have the power to mandate lockdowns. Or maybe not.
‘The Dark Circle‘ by Linda Grant takes the elitist nineteenth-century TB sanatorium setting of ‘The Magic Mountain’ and then gives it a thoroughly modern twist by honing in on the end of such institutions in the UK with the foundation of the National Health Service. Grant’s novel is a celebration of the NHS and a condemnation of any wish to romanticize illness. It is also an extremely enjoyable reworking of many themes from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,’ and probably has the best female characters of any of the books on this sadly very male-dominated list.
A must read for this epidemic is Sjon’s ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was,’ a hypnotically poignant story set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Taking in natural disasters (an opening scene is set against the background of Kalta volcano erupting) nationalism (it also features Iceland’s independence celebrations), and the status of outsiders, it felt strikingly modern when I read it in 2017. On re-reading, it is the scenes exploring the effect of the pandemic on cinema-going that most hit home. A beautiful book and the best fiction about a flu pandemic I have ever encountered.
‘The Plague’ naturally needs a mention on this list, partly because Camus is a far easier read than his philosophical reputation can suggest but also because this classic of isolation and contagion is simply begging for a mention. The title really says it all, an Algerian town is struck down by a plague and society struggles to cope. This is Camus, so it could also be an allegory about oppression, religion, French resistance to the Nazis and so on. Read it for yourself, under the extreme conditions of a non-fiction pandemic, to see how many other messages can be added to the list.