Lockdown has brought with it an enforced return to more solitary, simple pleasures. Occasionally I’ve found journalists sparing a few column inches for discussion of these, with one hobby sticking out in particular. Sadly I’m a terrible gardener, so you’re getting some book recommendations instead. It’s not difficult to see why reading has become the time-passer of choice for so many people. Depending on your inclination, books can give solidarity to those in solitude through introspection, or alternatively provide a distraction through escapism. Whichever you fancy, there should be a book below for you. Or, rather, for me: I will not pretend that this list is anything other than entirely subjective. Anyway, on with the list!
Nutshell – Ian McEwan
You can’t get much more introspective than Nutshell, a modern retelling of Hamlet with a protagonist who puts a whole new perspective on shelter in place. Giving away any more than that would ruin one of the strangest opening lines to a novel I’ve ever come across. McEwan is probably best known for the rather more grandiose Atonement, which spanned a few decades and was full of Big Ideas. Nutshell contains a lot of the same playfulness but on a smaller and more intimate scale, making it a good place to start for the yet to be converted. A good pick for those who want something completely unique – you’ll know from the opening line whether it’s for you or not, and I fear poor Ian might have lost some money from Amazon’s preview feature.
Solar Bones – Mike McCormac
This book ripped off the most annoying bit of Ulysses but made it compulsively readable, before Lucy Ellman made doing so cool with Ducks, Newburyport. Comprised of just one sentence spanning 265 pages (please keep reading), it documents daily routine from a resolutely internal perspective. In lockdown it seems that everything we do has greater significance, purely because most really significant things just aren’t available right now. Solar Bones captures this feeling deftly with a protagonist who often finds himself trapped in the minutiae of life, indulging in lengthy mental digressions on the humdrum and the tedious. My initial conclusion from when I discovered this, that such a man must be profoundly boring, is countered with frequent flashes of humour and some heart-breaking introspection which make this book of trivialities essential reading for current circumstances.
Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor
A murder mystery novel would not ordinarily belong on a list of quiet introspective books, but bear with me. This one in particular opens in a small village after the disappearance of a young girl – and then stays there, long after the culprit has presumably fled. While that might sound frustrating, this is a novel preoccupied with finding a way through frustration and keeping busy in the face of tragedy. Interspersed with lush prose documenting the intricacies of nature over a whole year, it details the constant creeping of time, even in moments where time should stand still. It might sound strange for such a book to be supremely uplifting, and it takes a while to get there, but it’s certainly worth the journey when it does.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
To those of you who haven’t read Hitchhiker’s, we are now onto the escapist section of this list. Those of you who have read it should have guessed that already, because nothing of consequence fails to happen in this book. Beginning with the end of the world, Douglas Adams has taken on global capitalism, addictive technology and civil service bureaucracy before most books have gotten through their review quotes. It’s a good thing, too, because any comprehensive tally of the nice things said about this book would easily double its length. This book I’ve read and reread more than any other, and is one of the few science fiction books to really transcend the genre. Go and read it!
The Adversary – Emmanuel Carrere
What better way to escape your current problems than by immersing yourself in someone else’s? Carrere is criminally unknown in the UK, despite being something of a literary celebrity in France. This is the book that cemented his reputation worldwide, partly because of the intrigue inherent in the plot. The true story of Jean-Claude Romand, a man who spent nearly 20 years hiding from his family the fact that his entire life was a lie, is one you’d have to be a monumental numpty to make boring. Happily, Carrere is not a numpty. The gulf between Romand’s fiction and reality starts innocently enough, but steadily widens until it becomes almost unbearable. The moment when the two collide again is both tragic and, in some ways, almost relieving.
Something Big and Victorian
No, I don’t think this is cheating – it’s my list and I can do what I like. All books impart wisdom, but some books are wiser than others and in terms of bragging rights you can’t do much better than a Victorian novel. I’m currently wading my way through Anna Karenina which, while delightful, is just long enough that under any other circumstance I’d have given up by now. However, being trapped in a room with it for several weeks has made it increasingly difficult to avoid. With any luck, this should be the last time we’re all called upon to sit on our collective behinds in order to save the world: a great opportunity to get through some of those books you feel you should read, but don’t usually have the time for. It’s that or gardening – I know what I’d rather do.