Lockdown Log, Day 70

Tomorrow marks the start of the eleventh week of lockdown in the UK and although some further easing of the conditions begins today – with some children due to return to their classrooms – relatively little has changed in terms of the risks posed by the coronavirus. Those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to infection will now be allowed to venture out once a day, but not to go to shops or to anywhere that would make it difficult to maintain social distancing. As I have regularly enjoyed the change of scenery offered by a short, almost-daily walk – or a trip to the farm shop or supermarket for food – I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have been indoors for the past ten weeks, how depressing that would have been and, for at least some people, how difficult the prospect of that continuing must be.

The last week, in addition to its spring sunshine and blue skies, has been particularly interesting in a couple of ways. The furore over the breaking of lockdown rules by the British Prime Minister’s senior adviser dominated headlines for much of the week and will probably rumble on for some time. Of course, people will have broken the rules – any number have incurred fines for doing so – and where that was reckless and without apparent thought for the health and lives of others it is absolutely right that they should be penalised; this is, after all, why we are not allowed to drive under the influence of alcohol, or to carry dangerous weapons. Others, having been extremely careful of their level of interaction with other people – and knowing that they and their loved ones were all symptom-free – will also have bent the rules for a variety of reasons and that is perhaps understandable. However, the most distressing aspects of last week’s story were the deep and justifiable sense of betrayal felt by people up and down the country who have sacrificed never-to-be-repeated time with family members because that was what they were told was necessary, and the further loss of trust in our political leaders that has inevitably resulted. Public figures throughout the ages have always been just as vulnerable as anyone else to misbehaviour and that has often resulted in front-page scandal, but when the welfare of others is seen to have been put at risk, is it really naive to expect, from those in positions of power, a level of integrity that at the very least results in an apology? It is possible that my disappointment over these events has been coloured by having recently watched a really excellent docudrama series on Netflix about the fate of Czar Nicholas II and his family. The Czars clearly demonstrates the dangers of an unelected Rasputin figure exerting influence over those at the top. I am thankful that, a hundred years on, the reaction here has been far less violent than it was in Russia.

The second reason that I, at least, have had such an interesting week is, paradoxically, because the pandemic forced the cancellation of one of the country’s largest literary festivals – but the organisers came up instead with a wonderful online programme of events. From a wide range of speakers, and alongside viewers from all around the world, I have enjoyed Hay Festival sessions covering philosophy, history, faith and sciences including epidemiology, medicine and physics. It has been really good and, combined with three other online book events, has resulted in an expanded wish-list of titles and a number of visits from my local bookshop owner, delivering orders by bicycle.

IMG_20200531_164833

I read this week that one result of the limitations imposed on our usual activities in the UK – despite the surge in online shopping – is that consumer debt has reduced markedly. I can understand at least in part how this has come about because, although I regularly purchase certain things online, I have never been a fan of buying clothes, for example, without being in a shop and able to try things out. Somehow that is part of what makes the whole experience pleasurable. Having said that, and being someone who has campaigned against the environmentally damaging impacts of ‘fast fashion’, last year I did toy with the idea of joining the pledge not to purchase any items of clothing for a whole year. I chickened out – but was hugely impressed to read of friends who had succeeded. So, now I realise that without even trying I have not bought a single item of clothing since last year and, as a result, I am seriously thinking that if I have managed five months painlessly then there really is no good reason not to keep it up and make it through to the end of 2020.

I may have bought no clothes, but since the imposition of lockdown I have bought chocolate – something I don’t usually do because it is just too tempting to have in the house – and it has become an occasional evening treat: perhaps it is our way of celebrating wordlessly another few days without either ill-health or getting on each other’s nerves! I have also bought more books than usual – and I would find it almost impossible to contemplate a year without doing so, even though that might result in both rereading some favourites and starting some of those there has not yet been time to open.

IMG_20200531_164049

Finally, as many, many other people have been doing, I have been photographing some of the colours and shapes in our garden.

Lockdown Log, Day 27

It is hard to believe that it is very nearly four weeks since the UK lockdown was imposed and while it is difficult to be physically separated from family and friends our situation is very easy indeed compared to those who have been bereaved in recent weeks, whose jobs are under threat or who are having to juggle work alongside home-schooling their children. In fact, every few days I have to remind myself that, had we not been ‘grounded’ by the virus pandemic, we would have been separated from family and friends for a month anyway and would currently be somewhere in northern China on a train heading west towards the border with Kazakhstan. Distracted by all sorts of other enticing reading, I had not got around to any of the various books about the Silk Road that we had acquired as background reading and I now realise that I have been given an opportunity to rectify that and to do some vicarious travelling before we are able to take our postponed trip.

But there are always other books to tempt me away from good intentions: a quick scan of just a couple of our laden shelves suggests that, even of the fiction titles, there are perhaps one in every twenty or so that I have yet to read. So, I was really pleased recently to discover that the Japanese have a word for this trait that is well over a hundred years old: tsundoku is ‘acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them’. The word is a combination of terms for piling things up for later and leaving them, and for reading books. So tsundoku can be translated as one’s reading pile. I do have a reading pile but it is relatively modest, comprising newly bought books or books received as gifts that have yet to be read and, crucially, that have not yet been allocated a place on a shelf. I know for certain that there are other books – particularly large volumes that might threaten to overburden my bedside table – that also fall into the ‘yet to read’ category but that have already been found a home and are on my mental ‘to read’ list. The latest doorstop from Hilary Mantel is among these and I am currently watching again the television adaptation of Wolf Hall in preparation for a mammoth read of the second and third parts of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

IMG_20200419_163836

Meanwhile, I am nearing the end of a paperback novel – I periodically search the brilliant local Oxfam bookshop for books by favourite authors or titles from my ‘wishlist’ that I can get at a bargain price – but have also just had delivered a real treat of a hardback book. Our new local independent bookstore has, with every other bookshop in the country, had to close its doors to customers but fortunately it had been open just long enough to gain a loyal following. Offering a really wonderful service that included author events and book signings, and an inaugural book festival last autumn, it has gone fully online in recent weeks and is managing to take and process orders and then deliver them to doorsteps. It has been great during the lockdown to have twice had a phone call telling me that an ordered book had arrived and would be on its way later that day and then, when the doorbell rang some hours later – and after leaving an appropriate pause before opening the door, to find a brown paper bag sitting on the step and bookshop owner Ben on his bicycle, panniers laden with books, making sure that the book would be safely taken in. We had a socially distanced chat about my latest purchase, a title that had been on my wishlist for a while but that he had not come across before. It is a booklover’s delight, a book that celebrates tsundoku in all its various forms. I am already enjoying it and know that, when I have finished reading it, I will love dipping into it again and again. Biblio-Style: How We Live at Home with Books is fabulously illustrated and very cleverly arranged, with the private libraries of book collectors set alongside specialist bookshops and archives, all according to the way in which the owners regard their collections. Are they haphazard or organised, do they have a dedicated space or are they everywhere, does the owner collect all sorts of books or do they specialise? I have yet to work out exactly where our relatively modest library would fit into the author’s categories, let alone where this book will find its home in our collection.

My lockdown log of things that I am particularly grateful for has not been in any order at all – family and friends would have taken first place – but if it had been then books might well have been on the second day.

Another year of reading

2019 books collage

Almost to my surprise I have managed to average a book a week during 2019, which was a bit of an ambitious target for me. I was helped enormously by some long train journeys and by a beautiful short poetry book received as a Christmas gift. So, despite the length of time spent on Dostoevsky and on two large Philip Pullman tomes I have nevertheless read my way with great pleasure through 31 works of fiction, 20 non-fiction titles – ranging from the Peterloo Massacre through some Indian history, the Chernobyl disaster and a good deal of climate change – and a poetry book!

I am looking forward to some more great reads in 2020, and with two pretty large piles of books received during December – not to mention book tokens – and with a new local bookshop, it looks set to be a good start to a new decade of reading.

(For my reviews of all these book – plus the 48 films, operas and theatre productions seen during 2019, visit the ‘review’ page on this website.)

Another year in books

2018 all booksDuring 2018, I read 43 books: 25 fiction, 17 non-fiction and one poetry. I read new works by authors whose work I have already enjoyed, as well as discovering some new favourites. I learned a bit about brain surgery, nursing and cocoa – and a range of other things as well. I also had the great privilege of meeting a number of the writers whose books I have admired this year. It has been a good year for reading and I look forward to what this new year brings.

 

The Joy of Books

The Joy of Books

Encouraged by a friend who is a much speedier and more voracious reader than I am, but who nevertheless seems able to retain the essence of the many books she reads each year, I decided towards the end of 2016 to record all of my ‘leisure’ reading by posting a short review of each completed book on my facebook timeline. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this and have kept it going after completing a first year of books. Not only did it encourage me to read more widely – and to make a greater effort to get through the titles lying in wait in my ‘yet to be read’ basket, it also reminded me just how much I love the feel, the appearance and the variety of physical books. It was therefore a real delight – although not without expense and hard work – that during the latter part of my first year of book-reviewing, we had some adjustable library-style shelving installed in both our living rooms, effectively converting one of them into a library-cum-sitting room and allowing all our many volumes to be much better organised by subject and genre. So, as I am now into a new year of reading, and of writing about reading, here is a quick look back at what 2017 contained, both in books and in sorting books: firstly, the twenty-six books I read:

2017 collage

… and then the major project and the many, many hundreds of books that I moved, and in some cases moved again – and again.

Before:

Family Room 2 [June 2017]  Family Room 1 [June 2017]

During:

2017.10.27  2017.10.27[4]

2017.10.29  2017.10.29[4]

The lovely dividers that the carpenters made for us!

2017.10.20[5]

And after:

2017.11.16[3] 2017.11.16

What a privilege and a joy to be able to be surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, colour, imagination, beauty, poetry, humour and wisdom – in the shape of books.