Literature’s Lessons: Advice from a locked down reader

Samuel King shares some wisdom on revisiting literary classics

At the beginning of the UK’s first national lockdown our news outlets gleefully reported a surge in book sales with classics with War and Peace, Don Quixote and Middlemarch cited as particular favourites amongst consumers. I must confess, I attempted none of these texts. Eliot’s legendary 880-page novel has rested on a bookcase opposite my bed for a long time, merely gathering dust. I don’t think I ever even dared purchase a copy of Tolstoy’s equally imposing work. As I believe many quickly discovered in lockdown, being stuck inside all the time does nothing for my ability to focus and with a text like Middlemarch or War and Peace that is precisely what one requires: focus. 

Rather than the opportunity to wade through massive novels, what my lockdown me desperately yearned for was a sense of achievement, of making progress on something. With that in mind, I collected a pile of strictly medium-sized paperbacks and set myself the challenge of getting through as many as possible. So, no. I did not read Middlemarch – voted the greatest British novel in a 2015 BBC survey. I instead went for Eliot’s far shorter but just as noteworthy Silas Marner and sampled the brilliant prose of a writer I had long neglected but without feeling as though I was in a never-ending nightmare of inactivity (my mother abandoned her re-read of Middlemarch after page 370, not even half-way).  

After solving the problem of length, I came across the next conundrum: content. What do people want in lockdown? The harrowing tragedy of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure where life is painted in the bleakest shades possible or the charming and witty love stories of Jane Austen? I can confirm that after a period of deliberation, I went for the latter and never looked back. The sharp humour with which Austen describes Miss Bates and Mrs Elton in what is often described as her greatest novel, Emma, was the perfect cure for lockdown stagnation. With that, I had a proven formula: canonical author, nothing over medium length and preferably funny. 

After finishing Austen’s classic, I reapplied the formula and explored the genius of Evelyn Waugh’s Fleet-street satire Scoop – one of my favourite excerpts being: 

‘When he turns up in a place you can bet your life that as long as he’s there it’ll be the news centre of the world.

‘Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window–you know.

‘Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you.

‘They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage–but that was colour stuff.’

Additionally, thanks to my new-found system I savoured the unparalleled wit of Nabokov’s Pnin, which tracks the eponymous character’s academic bumblings as the Russian expatriate attempts to digest America’s jarring culture while Assistant Professor at Wellesley College, and many other restorative reads. Both Forster’s A Room with a View and Greene’s Travels with My Aunt also stood out as particularly appealing mediums of escape from the pandemic with the former outlining a love story in an edenic Florentine setting and the latter following an elderly and unassuming aunt’s daring enterprises. My tested formula for selecting lockdown reading proved successful time and time again with the minutes, hours and days gradually ticking away.