Books

Lockdown culture: books to inspire, uplift, and offer escape

From Hilary Mantel to Kazuo Ishiguro and Marlon James to Sebastian Barry, writers share their favourite literary comforts
Illustration by Lehel Kovács.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Author of American Wife and the forthcoming Rodham: What If Hillary Hadn’t Married Bill (Doubleday, May)

Curtis Sittenfeld

Alice Munro has been my favourite writer ever since I first read a collection of her stories almost 30 years ago, when I was still a teenager. Periodically, something in life reminds me of one of her stories, and I reread it. When I do, I’m freshly struck by the richness of her plots and the complexity of her characters, their emotions, and their relationships with each other. Although her work isn’t uplifting per se, its wisdom is somehow inherently reassuring to me. More than once, I’ve thought: I bet if I started each day by reading an Alice Munro story instead of looking at Twitter, I’d be so much better off. Full disclosure: I haven’t. But maybe I finally will. In the meantime, no hour of the day is wrong for reading a Munro story, and no Munro story is the wrong one. But why not start with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage?

Sebastian Barry

Author of Days Without End and A Thousand Moons

Sebastian Barry

It seems uncanny that there is a radiant book for these times, although it was written 2,000 years ago. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is very modern somehow, of the moment certainly. Indeed, he warns against futile reference both to the past and the future. He is trying to balance himself on the pin of the present. Also, he advises not to rail against misfortune, but to use all your self and self-possession to breast it. I don’t know if he ever achieved what he advises. Throughout all the years of his reign as Roman emperor, plague burned back and forth through the empire. His philosophy is that troubles are constant, a given of life. The weapons against them are courtesy and compassion, and to do the work that has been allotted to you. The comfort of Aurelius is in his calm certainty, whispered in your ear. If he had a descendant, it might be Churchill.

Hilary Mantel

Author of Wolf Hall,Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel

The Women in Black is not a cheering title, but in Madeleine St John’s novel the characters are not in mourning; they are salesladies in a 1950s department store in Sydney. It’s a coming-of-age story. As one of the characters tells us: “A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all Creation.” The author died in 2006, and her reclusive last years were marred by illness, but she was wry, smart and funny, able to write about youth with piercing sweetness and without portentous foreshadowing. This gem of a book is one of the few I know that delivers, without manipulation or sentimentality, a bounce of joy in its final sentence.

Marlon James

Author of A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard Red Wolf

Marlon James

Back in the stone age when I was a teenager, reading X-Men and being in the X-Men felt like the same thing. Feared and hated by the world they’ve sworn to protect? Feared and hated by the cool kids whose homework I kept doing for free? At 14 I didn’t see much difference. And yet, those 22 pages every month were all that saved me from harming myself. I drifted from comics several years ago, but Jonathan Hickman’s House of X brought me roaring back. Ironic, then, that a book that still fills me with such hope kicks off with the loss of it. Mutants, having finally lost faith in humanity ever doing the right thing, have decided to rely only on themselves. Bleak for some maybe, but as I look at my Black Lives Matter T-shirt, I know exactly what it means when you realise there’s no justice, just us. If this really is the season where the best you can do for others is care for yourself, then House of X is the urgent love letter that arrived just in time.

Evie Wyld

Author of All The Birds Singing and The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld

It feels like a good time to revisit some Chuck Palahniuk. I read Survivorwhen I was 19 and it is one of those immersive exciting “fun” books that I don’t read enough of any more. When I say fun, it’s about a death cult, so it’s not light fun. But he’s so playful as a writer, the pages are numbered backwards and I remember being amazed they’d let you do something like that. Tender, the hero of the book, is working as a housekeeper and has all sorts of tips about how to get blood and semen out of upholstery. I feel like Palahniuk showed me what was possible in fiction, how to have fun with it, and this feels like the summit of play, full of blood and other bodily fluids, explosions and disgusting yet compelling characters.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Author of The Remains of the Day,Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff is just about the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of right now. Published in 1931, this is an exquisitely subtle account of an ordinary lower-middle class family from south London, preparing for, travelling to, then enjoying their modest summer holiday in Bognor Regis. At one level totally undramatic, Sherriff magically re-calibrates our norms of what is and isn’t wonderfully exciting till we become utterly tuned into the rise and fall of this family’s emotions. Sherriff never patronises, nor does he attempt to exalt these people beyond what they are. He respects them for all the right reasons – for their instinctive decency towards one another and to those they encounter, and for the unselfconscious – perhaps unconscious – way they function as a happy family, despite their individual insecurities and frustrations. The Great English Seaside Holiday in its heyday, and the beautiful dignity to be found in everyday living, have rarely been captured more delicately.

Elif Shafak

Author of Three Daughters of Eve and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak

These days I find myself reading biographies (and autobiographies) more than ever before. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen written by the renowned music journalist Sylvie Simmons is a terrific book and I would recommend it especially in these strange, unsettling times. As you keep reading, you will be hearing his music playing somewhere in the background. Warm, real, intense, uplifting without even trying.

There is a lot in this book: love, for sure, but also heartbreak. Talent, definitely, but also the struggles of an introvert. There is humour, humanism, sorrow, melancholy, loneliness. The beauty of Cohen’s music, the power of his lyrics, the complexity of his character, the Greek worry beads he carried in his pocket even when he looked incredibly calm and composed – “Darling,” he would say, “I was born in a suit.”

I have always loved his music but there is a magical moment that I carry with me – the concert he gave in Istanbul shortly before his death. A beautiful night, starry skies. In my mind, Cohen is still singing on a stage in Istanbul, with his elegant manners, troubled soul, striking mixture of mischief and shyness, and “the gentle modesty with which he dealt with big subjects”.

Max Porter

Author of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny

Max Porter

Meg and Mog books never fail to cheer me up. My littlest child is learning to read so we are enjoying them together. A very high level of dramatic commitment is necessary, and amateur dramatics with funny accents is good for the soul. However depressed or worried one might be, once you’re in a Meg and Mog story you’ve got no choice but to TWIT-TWOO and SNAP and EEK, all the voices, all the noise. Undercooking it isn’t an option. They have a strong and uplifting acid-house energy. This inherent joy, combined with the already miraculous essence of hope that is a child learning to read, and the rush of nostalgia from reading the same books one was read as a child (and the joyous recall of Alan Bennett reading Owl for the TV show, which I confess I affectionately imitate), and you have a powerful dose of positive feeling to get you through the night.

Mark Haddon

Author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Porpoise

Mark Haddon

I don’t go to novels for comfort. I go to TV dramas and documentaries. In particularly difficult times I go to diazepam and an emergency iTunes playlist. I read novels for intellectual stimulation, for insights into different lives and different minds, for the thrill of language used in new ways. I do, however, have a soft spot for Victorian fiction. The often soothingly melodramatic plots, yes, but equally the syntax and the cadence – language written by people with more time to write, for an audience with more time to read, or indeed to listen. Eliot, Dickens, Gaskell, the Brontës, Wilkie Collins, Trollope… pretty much anything except Wuthering Heights (why were we so seduced for so long by a dog-strangling sex-abuser?). I’ve just started reading Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and it’s very much hitting the spot so far.

David Nicholls

Author of One Day,Us and Sweet Sorrow

David Nicholls

I love all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels but I think At Freddie’s is the brightest; brisk, witty and delightful. Set in London’s West End in the early 1960s, it’s the story of a chaotic stage school presided over by the indomitable Freddie. When a new children’s acting academy threatens to usurp her institution, Freddie sets out to close it down. There’s something of the Ealing comedy to this slim, crisp book – Freddie herself is pure Margaret Rutherford – and I think it’s the best book about theatre that I’ve read (though Anne Enright’s Actress comes close). I particularly love the brilliantly pretentious Peter Brook-style production of King John. At Freddie’s is not as beautiful, sophisticated or profound as Fitzgerald’s later novels but it has never failed to make me laugh.

Tayari Jones

Author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow

Tayari Jones

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is the novel I return to when I am in need of comfort. When most people talk about this book, they lean so heavily on the issues of child abuse, poverty, and racism. And while these societal ills are part of the weave of this powerful story, it is also a testament to love of all types – romantic, familial, spiritual, any kind of attachment that binds one heart to another. Also, Walker’s down-home humour is on full display in this work, not a laugh-to-keep-from-crying sort of humour, but the kind of humour that reminds us that the human spirit always hits every note on the scale of emotion. She grants us the happy ending we long for, but she makes us work hard for it. Like the old folks say: to get to freedom, you got to cross the river.

Kevin Barry

Author of Beatlebone and Night Boat to Tangier

Kevin Barry

Rattling around the house the other night, my bottom lip wobbling with the Corona Fear Jitters, I wondered who could possibly be feeling worse off than I was, and so I reached for Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems. Poetry will console us oddly sometimes by opening a view onto the abyss – the morbid obsessions of others distract us blissfully from our own. I sat in by the fire, poured a glass, and fell into the sweat soak of Larkin’s melancholia. How cleanly his sad note seems to ring out just now, and how suitable that the book should fall open on The Trees. Its opening verse – “The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said;/ The recent buds relax and spread,/ Their greenness is a kind of grief.”

David Mitchell

Author of Cloud Atlas and the forthcoming Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, July)

David Mitchell

Rosemary Sutcliff’s glorious Eagle of the Ninthtrilogy, set in Roman Britain, offers three for the price of one. Why do I find the trilogy uplifting? Firstly, Sutcliff was a superb writer with a classicist’s grasp of the era, a poet’s eye for nature and a devilish sense of plot. Fiction this evergreen cannot fail to uplift. Secondly, the trilogy celebrates survival against harsh odds. Sutcliff used a wheelchair, and her heroes come with impairments that make their victories all the more epic. Thirdly, books set in antiquity restore my trust in the human continuum. Pandemics, shortages, shysters on the throne and fear that the sun won’t rise tomorrow are nothing new. Yet the sun always rises. When Covid-19 is in the past, you can go to Reading Museum to visit the bronze Silchester Eagle that inspired these masterly books. It’s survived from the 2nd century AD. Staying power.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Author of Stay With Me

Ayobami Adebayo

For succour, comfort or a laugh, I return often to That Glimpse of Truth, a compilation of 100 short stories selected by David Miller. Although I’ve always leaned on books to steady me through stressful situations, I’d largely limited myself to novels. However, during a season when my schedule made it difficult to sink into a book for as long as I would have loved to, I needed books I could dip in and out of and yet manage to come away from bolstered with some sense of an ending. I stumbled on That Glimpse of Truth around then. Its varied selection allows me to journey across centuries, preoccupations and genres. I could go into it for anything from Clarice Lispector’s ironic allegory to AM Homes’s disconcerting and incisive excavation of everyday life on one day and find respite in Roald Dahl’s wicked wit on the next.

Colm Tóibín

Author of Brooklyn, House of Names and Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín

The best novel I know about social distancing is Joseph Conrad’s Victory, published in 1915, in which Axel Heyst, with the object of his affections , moves to an island called Sambouran, where they attempt an extreme form of social distance. The aspect of the novel that offers us comfort is its form. Many scenes are narrated twice from the perspective of two different characters. Conrad’s genius is to make this engaging. And that is hard to do in literature, but it is even tougher in life when you start to notice, in this time of social distance, that today’s soup is merely the second half of yesterday’s soup, and that pasta will pass its sell-by date if you don’t eat it today, even though you ate some of it yesterday. So it is too with wine and movies and press conferences on television. There is always a feeling that this happened yesterday as well. It is our sad fate that it has to happen again today and so into the futureless future.

Deborah Levy

Author of Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything

Deborah Levy

The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Daliis my top comfort read. It never fails to make me laugh because this is not a humble memoir: “I am essentially a visionary, a sort of sounding board for total truth.” Dalí wishes to astound us with his genius, to celebrate his madness, to give full-blown vent to his erotic hallucinations, his fear and fascination with life, death, paranoia and religion. All the same, his silver tongue is firmly in his vain cheek.

Here he is in the chapter titled How to Make Money: “I like the bread and butter of reality only when it is spiritualised, that is, spread with a good layer of gold.” He has nothing but praise for his own art: “I paint in order to be and to unite all the forces of myself. And through my work which is my life I explore the most exalted of human secrets.”

So far, so good. I’m with him all the way. But then he just can’t resist adding: “That is why each of my blossomings is a harvest for all mankind.” This is not autobiographical literature that has anything to do with suffering or self-help. Dalí presents himself as being way past needing help. He is delighted to be marooned in his own narcissism.

David Peace

Author of the Red Riding quartet and Patient X

David Peace

For anyone missing sport, and specifically the distraction of the conversations it provided, I recommend revisiting the vintage reports of Hugh McIlvanney in McIlvanney on Football. My father and I are enjoying reading these to each other remotely, which prompts me to suggest that whichever book we read at this time, perhaps we could read it aloud to someone? Maybe ask those we are staying home with, or especially those we are separated from, particularly those who are elderly or alone, which book they would like to hear. Fortunately, various applications now give us the opportunity to read to each other, no matter how distant we are. And whatever we read, if we read it aloud, then it’s hopefully a shared time of respite for both reader and listener.

Guy Gunaratne

Author of In Our Mad and Furious City

Guy Gunaratne

Books that I’ve turned to for solace have usually found me at times when I’ve needed them the most. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude helped me through a particularly tough time. That was a moment when I just needed to be told a story. Something to sweep me away. The book had been sitting on my shelf for years before then, just waiting. I also jokingly recommended Love in the Time of Cholera to a friend of mine who has only just recently fallen in love (bad timing). Elsewhere, I can think of John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing, Arundhati Roy’s fiction or collected nonfiction, Olivia Laing’s new Funny Weather, and no better time to pick up Ali Smith’s Spring, part of a series of books whose belief in goodness has never failed to rejuvenate.

Kamila Shamsie

Author of Burnt Shadows and Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie

It is the sheer imaginative joy of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that brings me back to it decade after decade. As Marco Polo relays to Kublai Khan one dazzling tale after another of the cities he has known, the Great Khan listens enraptured even while not necessarily believing what he hears. Facts are irrelevant when fiction is this enchanting. You can read a single entry – sometimes no longer than a paragraph – and live off the pleasure of it for a long time (which may be just what’s needed if you’re feeling too distracted for sustained reading). Or you can burrow in and find that you are – and I use this word with care in these times of lockdown – transported.

Alan Hollinghurst

Author of The Line of Beauty and The Sparsholt Affair

Alan Hollinghurst - writer.

I thought JR Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday was the most enjoyable book I’d ever read when I discovered it belatedly 10 years ago, and it seems to me even better now. Another time (the 1920s), and another place (the Indian state of Chhokrapur), are captured in a brilliantly observant journal by Ackerley, who had spent five months there as private secretary to the whimsical, indecisive and sexually unorthodox Maharajah, one of the most enchanting characters in nonfiction. Evelyn Waugh called Hindoo Holiday “radiantly delightful” and its accuracy of human perception “intoxicating”. Wise, subtle, amazingly frank and wonderfully funny, it makes a perfect outing from the horrors of the present moment.

Polly Samson

Author of The Kindness and A Theatre for Dreamers

Polly Samson

I have chosen Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns because there are moments that will always make me laugh out loud. There’s a wedding, a feckless young painter and his even younger bride, our dotty narrator, who brings her pet newt Great Warty in her pocket and lets him have a swim in the water jug. Set in bohemian 1930s London, what follows is a tale of grinding poverty, the misuse of a lovely young girl, the death of a baby and yet, despite this descent from ill-advised marriage to the bleakest of abandonments, it manages to be both uplifting and uniquely funny. The charm is in the voice of winningly eccentric Sophia who begins this sorry tale by letting us know that when she told her friend Helen her story she went home and cried and then sent her husband to see her with some strawberries and to mend her bicycle which he needn’t have done because “it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now”. The scene that sticks in my head is one where Sophia decides that the best way to clean a chimney is to throw a live goose down it, which still strikes me as quite a good idea.

Matthew Kneal

Author of English Passengers,Rome: A History in Seven Sackings and forthcoming novel, Pilgrims (Atlantic, June)

Matthew Kneale

As a teenager I read the Sherlock Holmes short stories repeatedly and never grew tired of them. There’s something very reassuring about their format, starting in Holmes’s apartment in Baker Street, a comforting spot that is filled with Victorian confidence and domestic charm. Doyle’s portrait of late Victorian London is as rich and vivid as earlier depictions by Dickens and Pepys. The stories are just the right length, so their mysteries never need to be padded out with cul-de-sacs (the problem with most detective fiction since). They also show extraordinary inventiveness – Doyle’s many copiers seem grey by comparison – so their solutions really do come as revelations. The best collections are the first two: The Adventures and The Memoirs.Stories to savour, like delicious snacks.

Jon McGregor

Author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor

I’ve been planting seeds this week. I plant seeds most years, usually too late and often haphazardly, but this year it feels somewhat more urgent. Or defiant. My favourite are the peas, and that’s at least partly because every time I see a pea shoot I think of an essay from Amy Leach’s 2013 collection, Things That Are, in which she describes the teetery yearning of pea tendrils in search of lattices. “Tendril wending is swervy and conjectural,” she writes, conjuring onomatopoeia out of pea anatomy in the contagious kind of way that should renew anyone’s love of language. In a few short pages of gleeful anthropomorphising – “what they want is beyond their powers of apprehension … for they are fixed on the imperceptible” – Leach manages to assert that desire is what makes all living things both alive and in peril. And somehow that thought makes me feel better right now.

Robert Webb

Actor turned author of How to Be a Boy and forthcoming novel Come Again (Canongate, April)

Robert Webb

From the Land of Shadows by Clive James won’t be everyone’s idea of comfort reading: you don’t generally curl up with a collection of literary criticism. Except when the writer is Clive James, obviously. I could have chosen anything of his but this is the paperback currently by my bed. Mostly written in the late 70s, the essays are equally enjoyable whether dealing with James’s heroes – Larkin, Gore Vidal – or writers who are more likely to attract ridicule. His highly entertaining account of Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz is included here and is as funny as ever. It’s probably because I was such an idle and chaotic English student that I find a nostalgic warmth in reading criticism. Especially when delivered by a writer as clear, wise and humorous as Clive James.

Rachel Joyce

Author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the forthcoming Miss Benson’s Beetle (Doubleday, June)

Rachel Joyce

Right now I am looking to escape into powerfully good stories, and I am looking for ones that are told with flair, compassion and a fair dose of humour: I want to connect with people, even if they are imaginary. Funny, tragic, original and beautiful, The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken is exactly one of those books. Set in 1950 in a small town on Cape Cod, it follows the deepening friendship between James Sweatt, the world’s tallest man – although, for the vast part of the story, he is no more than a boy – and 26-year-old librarian Peggy Cort, who believes life and love have passed her by. “He’s not sick, he’s tall. You can’t catch that,” she tells one of her co-workers. The Giant’s House is about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle, and the strength of choosing to love in a world that makes no promises. A small masterpiece.

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