Shall it be The Plague or Right Ho, Jeeves?
When the going gets tough, the tough . . . buy books?
I couldn’t be better placed for weeks of social isolation from the point of view of reading. I have enough books here to last for years and years if you count books that I’d be happy to reread. And yet I am still buying them. I have just ordered another online (since you ask, a second-hand copy of The Funeral of Figaro by Ellis Peters recently reviewed by my friend, Moira, over at Clothes in Books). The libaries are closed and I need books to do research for my new novel (no excuse for not getting on with this now that my social calendar is completely empty), so I have been ordering them from the Guardian bookshop. Yes, people are stocking up on tins of baked beans and loo paper and I am panic-buying books.
The question I asked earlier was, shall it be Camus’s The Plague or Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves. That is, shall it be serious reading or reading to escape (not that the two are mutually exclusive). A bit of both, I hope. I would like to say that I shall be using this enforced leisure to read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, but just as people read Agatha Christie while fire-watching in the Blitz, I am more likely turning to be turning for solace to Golden Age crime fiction or heart-stopping thrillers. And then there are those great comforters, Jane Austen and Trollope. I am currently listening to the divine Juliet Stevenson reading Mansfield Park: sheer bliss.
But there is another category of book that is apparently selling well: books like Camus’s The Plague and Stephen King’s The Stand, books that reflect the spirit of the times all too closely. I can’t class myself with those writers, but rather spookily, it turns out that I have written such a novel myself. In An Air That Kills Lyle is sponsoring research into the mechanisms that allow strains of animal flu to jump the species barrier and infect humans. Katie, my scientist heroine, imagines the impact of a such a disease in this age of mass communication: the virus spreading out ‘with the slow inevitability of ink released into water. She saw people, boarding planes, taking their deadly cargo to all corners of the globe.’ I did understand when I researched the novel last year that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen more or less straight away…