I have experienced a quarantine of sorts before. During our circumnavigation, James and I underwent several self-inflicted phases of social distancing as we traversed oceans. The Atlantic Ocean: 19 days. The Pacific Ocean: 24 days. The Indian Ocean: 28 days. We must now all prepare for at least this amount of time in the company of ourselves, and with those who we live.
One of the best things about those days of confinement at sea was the opportunity to read books. It was made easier by the removal of distractions: I couldn’t waste away precious minutes scrolling through Facebook, or perusing an infinite amount of television series, or hooked on the news cycle. Those precious minutes, I hope you will have realised by now, accumulate into hours over the course of a day. These hours become weeks over the course of a year, and the weeks become years over the course of a lifetime. Whenever I catch myself aimlessly scrolling, I remind myself of Annie Dillard’s simple but poignant observation: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I don’t want to spend my life scrolling.
With that in mind, I would implore you to be mindful of how you use this coming period of weirdness. Keep up to date with the news, by all means, but recognise that we are at the point where we know what we need to do: stay at home and wash our hands. Keep up to date with social media: it is a wonderful tool to keep in touch with friends and family in times like this, but use it in moderation. And keep up to date with Netflix and iPlayer, there are some great shows on there deserving of our attention (the BBC’s Noughts and Crosses is great.)
But, also, consider the book that’s been gathering dust on your bedside table. You bought it for good reason; it too is almost certainly worthy of your attention. One cannot be lonely in the company of a good book. But if you just can’t get into it, or if you’re looking for something new and nourishing, then here is a handpicked selection for you from three years worth of reading at sea. I have divided them into categories in case you were after something in particular: fiction, non-fiction, a memoir, a poem, and, as a bonus, the book that I would pack in the grab bag when James and I set to sea, in case we ever found ourselves castaway on a desert island and were in need of a wholesome read. It’s not an entirely different scenario to the one we are now entering. So, here we go.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
When an author has the ability to draw characters so delicately and absolutely that they climb out of the very pages and hold your hand as you move through your day, whispering into your thoughts and visiting you in your dreams, you know you have stumbled onto something special. This was my experience with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and upon finishing my fictional friends story, I was left aching for them. Of course, they are still there: they live on in the book, going round and round, in a fate that has been written for them, but a fate that you would still gladly read again and again just to be in their company. Ian McEwan – as far as I’m concerned – can do no wrong, and I would wholeheartedly recommend anything he has written, particularly Saturday if you have already read Atonement. But in Atonement he has produced something so real and heart wrenching and wonderful that it fully justified being created into the Keira Knightley-wielding motion picture. As usual, the film did not do the book justice, which is by no means a slight on the film, but a nod to McEwan’s masterpiece, which made it into the Time Magazine’s list of 100 Best Novels.
It is told from the point of view of Briony Tallis, who in 1935 at the age of thirteen initiates a series of events that play out disastrously against the backdrop of the Second World War. This novel is a lesson in the dangers of storytelling, but at the same time McEwan’s very storytelling entices and charms, and ultimately demonstrates its redeeming powers.
Here is one of my favourite excerpts, of Briony grappling with what it is to be human:
“Was everyone else really as alive as she was? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance.”
Behave, by Robert Sapolsky
I have no hesitation in saying that Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is the best non-fiction book I have ever read. Unfortunately, once I have introduced it you are probably going to think it’s not for you. It sounds complicated, unnecessary, perhaps even dull. But in fact it is a comprehensive, fascinating and incredibly accessible piece of work that delves bravely into explaining what the bloody hell is going on in those noggins of ours. If science and a deeper understanding is your cup of tea, I implore you to give it a go.
Sapolsky’s multi-disciplinary approach must be one of the most ambitious attempts yet to explain human behaviour, taking everything into account from neurons to childhood to culture. The structure of the book is key: Sapolsky arranges it as if we are looking through a lens that is slowly zooming out. We begin by learning about how our behaviour is influenced by things at the lowest level: that of neurobiology. Don’t worry, I’m terrible at science too, but Sapolsky guides us through this intricate molecular world with impressive ease. He then pulls out to the level of sensory cues – the sounds, smells, sights and so on that draw certain reactions from us – before zooming out further to the role of hormones. With this biological background in place, the reader is then given a grand tour of how foetal life, childhood and adolescence serve to form us.
We then reach a field of research beyond that of the individual, as we are escorted through the ways in which culture, ecology and evolution have shaped us, before being shown how we might think about the big questions of morality, war, and free will in terms of all this information. Humane, hilarious and eminent, this book is a heroic effort to bring the perplexing to the people.
Sapolsky clearly did not write it with a pandemic in mind, but it is interesting for me to think back on it now and recognise how poorly prepared our psychology is to deal with something like Covid-19. As stress hormones saturate our brain throughout these terrifying days, a fight or flight instinct arises in us, naturally. But there is nothing to fight, at least not in the sense that evolution has designed us for. And as for flight, that tends to mean running to the safety of our loved ones, which is the last thing any of us should be considering right now.
Personally, and perhaps paradoxically, I take strange comfort in the knowledge that our minds are not designed to deal with this: as the saying goes, it’s okay not to be okay. There is nothing about the state of the world now that evolution could have prepared us for: this is a very unique mess. But we will overcome it.
For all my love and respect for this book I am, however, acutely conscious that it is somewhat monstrous, coming in at 700 pages. In fairness, considering the vast ground it covers and the level of detail given, it is wondrous it fits into a mere 700 pages, but I appreciate this lockdown may be over before you get a chance to wade through all of that. In any case I still recommend it: the knowledge and enjoyment I gained from it is unparalleled by any other non-fiction book I know of.
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
If it’s something lighter you are after in this time of gloom and doom, some sort of escapism that trumps watching spring emerge through a glass pane, then look no further than Gerard Durrell’s enchanting account of his childhood in Corfu.
I read my mum’s copy of My Family and Other Animals when I was young, and so perhaps a certain nostalgia accompanies it for me, rather like re-reading childhood classics like Roald Dahl. Durrell’s books, however, though written through the lens of childhood innocence, are very much for adults; with devilish wit, bewitching descriptions of scenery and wildlife, and a warm, cosy insight into the antics of his preposterous family. Whilst My Family was the first memoir Durrell wrote, its success allowed him to write a further two – Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of The Gods – about the same period of his life, and they are both just as wonderful. Let the world spin outside, put the kettle on, and allow Durrell to transport you to the sunny climes of Corfu, and regale you with uproarious – albeit somewhat embellished – tales of a childhood, that most of us can only dream of.
Shoulders, by Shane Kozycan
Stories, lyrics, and the odd poem, tend to be my comfort blanket. There is little work I know of, however, that can offer any comfort in these times, because there have never been times like this.
But in Shoulders the Canadian spoken word poet Shane Kozycan offers us something that might do the trick. The poem is actually about the climate crisis, but it brims with a wisdom that can offer a lot in this situation too I believe. He discusses how the responsibility to act lies with us all. For the time being, of course, that means the responsibility of staying at home. Here is a nice excerpt:
“The most alarming part of the statement ‘we are facing crisis’
Isn’t the word ‘crisis’,
It’s the word ‘we’.
Because those two letters take the responsibility away from one
and rest it squarely on the shoulders of everybody.
We are Atlas now.
But our strength will come from finding a way to share in shouldering the responsibility,
Of turning the impossible into somehow.
Somehow, we will do this.
We can do this.”
Desert Island Book
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières
I will be forever bemused by the decision of the castaways on Desert Island Discs who choose to take things like dictionaries and encyclopaedias as their sole source of reading to their island. You are alone, scared, and with little hope of ever seeing another soul again, and you choose this moment in your life to read about all the things that you never bothered to learn before. To what end?
I would want a book that preserves as much of the human experience as is possible for pages to hold. A book I can lose myself in, that can carry me along on the rollercoaster of a life that I am missing out on. I know of no book better placed than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which will move you from warmth to anger, from hope to despair, from laughter to tears.
Hailed as a modern day version of The Odyssey, Bernières magnum opus is set in a little Greek island during the Second World War. This is a tragicomic novel of love and loss, of a tiny community and a big, wide world, of war and of peace. Indeed, one might draw comparisons with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with both authors rebelling against the idea of a top-down reading of history, each insisting that history be read through the accounts of ordinary folk. In his 900-page epic Tolstoy writes:
“To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved… it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.”
Bernières mirrors this himself, summarising his novel as being about “what happens to the little people when megalomaniacs get busy.” Indeed, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a scathing appraisal of how the decisions of the mighty torment the lives and loves of the ordinary people.
But above all, this book serves as a reminder for the beautiful things that can flourish out of times of devastation. Like many, I was dismissive of this coronavirus at first, but now we know we also dwell in devastating times, and this gem of a book might bring you some hope. Unglue yourself from the news cycle for a little bit, and allow some beauty to flourish in your life during this moment in history.
Here is an amusing but painfully relevant excerpt:
“Italians always act without thinking, it’s the glory and the downfall of your civilisation. A German plans a month in advance what his bowel movements will be at Easter, and the British plan everything in retrospect, so it always looks as though everything occurred as they intended. The French plan everything whilst appearing to be having a party, and the Spanish…well, God knows.”
If you choose to pick any of these up, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Be safe, and enjoy them.
Stay home. Read a book. Save lives.