Once upon a time, in a distant land, by the sea, there lived a girl who loved a shining rectangle. The girl was foolish, and she believed the rectangle to be wise. Before the sun had fully risen, the girl would consult the rectangle, her hair tangled on her pillow, her eyes gummed together with sleep, and her husband snoring softly beside her. “Oh, rectangle, tell me,” she would whisper. “What should I be sad about today? And what should I be angry about? Magic rectangle, please bring me all of the bad news in the world, so that I might spend the day twitching, and filled with foreboding!”
The girl was me. In the days leading up to 23 March, the day of lockdown, there was much to be sad and angry about. I’d started the year with a growing, queasy awareness that my addiction to rolling news was becoming a problem, and I wanted to do something about it. My mental health was suffering, but I couldn’t blame the internet. It was my fault for filling my head with grumpiness and terror every day before breakfast. Instead of grunting over a long list of why everything was absolutely terrible, perhaps I could start the morning by reading a book?
I kept this up for the first couple of weeks of January, but when the global pandemic hit the news cycle, the phone started sneaking back into the bed, like an untrainable puppy.
I’ve always been a reader. I host a podcast called You’re Booked, where I interview my favourite authors beside their bookshelves and find out all about their reading habits. As well as satisfying and legitimising my chronic nosiness, this has a very lucky upside. I get sent a lot of books. I want to buy and read every single book that our guests recommend, and I’m married to a fellow author and book addict. Yet when the proof pile is teetering, sometimes I don’t know where to begin, and the more books I have, the less I want to read. Heaven becomes homework.
Still, when the country went into lockdown, something shifted in my brain. I realised that my greatest fears had come true. There was no point scanning the news for information about how to prevent this. It couldn’t be avoided. In order to get through the coming days and weeks, I needed to start the day differently. It was time to step up my reading ritual. Before exposing myself to the day’s headlines, I would spend some time in 1950s Italy, or 1930s Suffolk, or just inside someone else’s head. If I could ingest 50 pages of fiction, first thing, I might feel more prepared to face the real-life dystopia that was surrounding us.
Books are such a big part of my work that I had to remind myself that they are a source of profound pleasure too. Instead of panicking my way through the proof pile and putting pressure on myself to get through all 900 “must-read” books for autumn, I allowed myself the luxury of buying the books I really wanted to read. My favourite independent bookshops let me pay online with PayPal – it was great to have the chance to support them throughout lockdown, and it meant that there was always something exciting in the post.
Our lovely local, The Margate Bookshop, would deliver directly to our door. This was especially appreciated when we ordered Craig Brown’s latest book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, a brilliant social pop history that weighs about as much as a sack of potatoes.
Over the last few months, there has been so much to be sad and scared about – but waking up and knowing that I’m in the middle of a wonderful book has helped me immeasurably.
Escaping into books has a powerful impact on my mental health. If I feel anxious and knotted, focusing on the page in front of me eases that feeling, even if the book is a dramatic one. Reading sates my craving for social media, providing me with the sense of connection I’ve been longing for. I’ve been devouring the Cazalet Chronicles for the very first time, and Villy and Jessica’s squabbles are much more entertaining than any Twitter feud.
I have become a book pusher. Making time to read was my way of surviving a period of enforced solitude – and yet books have kept me connected with my friends and family. Instead of struggling to find anything to talk about during the obligatory Zoom chats, I’ve turned myself into a one-woman guerrilla Book of the Week. Since lockdown began, I’ve read 35 books. Book 36 is The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr’s devastating, powerful debut about the forbidden union between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved young men working on a plantation in the deep south. It’s out next year, and I’d strongly recommend asking your local bookshop to order it in for you.
Every character that you meet in a novel is usually enduring some kind of crisis. They learn from it, grow and come out the other side. Immersing myself in so many different lives and stories has helped me to develop a better perspective on living through a very unusual time. At the moment, lockdown is easing, the rules are changing and the world is getting back to a kind of new normal. But this is my new normal. My lockdown love story is all about how I fell for stories themselves. Books and I will be living happily ever after.
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