When I went to the library at the end of June, my first visit after lockdown, it was not my typical library experience. Instead of spending time browsing the shelves, I had to order my books online and then wait for the library to phone to set up an appointment to collect them. After weeks of being at home with no plans all day, it felt strange to have to be somewhere at a specific time. The library looked closed when I arrived and I had to wait outside. The librarian opened the door, took my name and then hurried back inside, found my book on a table just inside the door and passed it out to me. That was it. I went to the library and didn’t even get to go inside the library.
My last, pre-Covid library visit was on March 10th. That evening, I told my sister that I was stocking up on books in case the government ordered the libraries to close. I was joking but that’s exactly what happened two days later. In early March, I didn’t really expect Ireland to go into full lockdown, but I knew that if it did, I wanted to be sure I had enough books. There was no real risk that I’d run out of things to read – I’ve been stock-piling books for years – but that trip to the library still felt important. I had a pleasant time wandering around the shelves and picking out books to keep me company when the world turned upside down. Of course, what I was really doing was pretending that I was in control by making tiny preparations against an incomprehensible threat.
The library is often the place I go to when I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed. There’s something restful and calming about being surrounded by books and stories. Each book is a promise of hours spent absorbed in someone else’s life. Whenever work was stressing me out, those days when it was just one thing after another, I would always head for a library or bookshop at lunchtime. It helped me let go of my stresses and feel better able to go back to work. If I didn’t have a bookshop or library close by, a charity shop with a few well-stocked bookshelves would do. (This is all past tense because I’ve been working from home since March so it’s all different now. There isn’t the same imperative to escape from the office.) I think most readers will recognise the calming effect that being around books has. Books are a source of comfort, not just as escapism, but also as a way of understanding the world or seeing it in a new light. That’s what books and reading mean to me; that’s why they feel vital for my survival.
Despite this, in the weeks after my March library visit, as the lockdown got stricter and the world outside got scarier, I struggled to find comfort or joy in books. I was reading less than usual, it felt like a chore. I like to read a bit before I go to sleep. Even reading a couple of pages means I’ll sleep better than if I’ve been staring at my phone right up until the moment I turn off the light. (This was back in March when I still slept with my phone beside the bed. Now it spends the night on the other side of the room with the data and wifi turned off.) I kept reading a few pages before switching out the light, to stop the doomscrolling and to stick with my normal routine, even though I kind of hated the book I was reading. The proses felt lazy, the transitions clunky and I just wasn’t enjoying it very much. I liked it enough to read to the end, and I still don’t know if it was the book or my brain that just wasn’t up to scratch.
Around the same time I signed up for a couple of magazine subscriptions. This was the stage of lockdown when the post was one of the few connections with the outside world we had left and always a bit of excitement. Getting magazines through the post felt like a good way to get that thrill so I signed for three months each of The New Yorker and the New Scientist. They were two of my best lockdown purchases. They’d arrived through the door and give me something new to read every week. I’d read them while I sat out in the garden or with my breakfast each morning. It stopped me from scrolling through my phone. Instead of being battered by the endless waves of fear and outrage, opinions and half-baked news headlines on twitter, I could submerge myself in a piece of writing that someone had taken time over; writing that would teach me something I didn’t know or expand my understanding in some way. The New Scientist did have a lot of stories about covid-19, but they were not sensational or attention grabbing, it was all well-researched and written with a clear understanding that this was a new virus and what we knew about it was changing all the time. They also had stories about new discoveries in space, about climate change, about advances in technology – all things that reminded me that the world was still continuing, new discoveries were being made, despite the pandemic. The New Yorker also had plenty of stories about the pandemic but instead of being about the science, they were about people. There was a lot written about the early days of the pandemic and how people realised that this was something serious, about the different lock-down rules in different countries or even in different areas of the same country, and how people were coping, what they were telling themselves about this strange new world. All over the world, people were coming to terms with the same new threat and it gave me a sense of connection to read about their reactions to this shared experience.
It was late April before I really got hooked by a book again. It was a fat Stephen King thriller, one of my mid-March library books, which broke the spell. The Institute is about children with psychic powers who are taken away from their parents and experimented on in an institute in rural Maine. It had a bit of a Stranger Things feel to it. I’m not a big horror fan but I like Stephen King. He’s really good at writing grippy page-turners. I’ve read Carrie and The Stand a couple of times and I enjoyed the Mr. Mercedes series. I skipped all his really scary ones – IT, The Shining, Pet Semetery, Misery – but I really like his book On Writing. The Institute had me hooked within a couple of chapters and soon I didn’t want to do anything else but read it all day long. Working from home is difficult when the book that’s got it’s claws into you is always close at hand. After that, I was able to read books for pleasure again. I started looking forward to getting back to my book instead of just picking it up out a sense of duty.
Another book that I really enjoyed during lockdown was Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking. It felt very suitable for the weird time we were going through. It’s about a young woman who is living alone in her dead grandmother’s house and struggling a little bit. Struggling with the solitude, with keeping normal hours and with life in general. I liked the attention to detail in the book, especially with regard to the natural world. It suited my mood nicely and I enjoyed it a lot. That was also from my March library book pile but I recently ordered her new book Handiwork, which I know a lot of people found to be a good lockdown read.
When the shops starting reopening again, I was keen to get back to the bookshops and my first visit into town included a trip to Chapters. It was my birthday weekend and even though I still had plenty of books to read at home, I left with a few new books – presents for myself. A couple of days later I got a book voucher for my birthday and bought another pile of books. Now, my room is full of books that I’m looking forward to reading and I have cancelled my magazine subscriptions. Three months is generally as long as I can sustain a weekly magazine habit. I get behind on my reading and I start finding magazines around the house, still is their plastic wrapping. I feel guilty about the paper and postage and have to cancel everything before it auto-renews.
I am still working my way through my stock-piled books, and I still keep stockpiling. I bought more books last weekend, even though I haven’t finished the ones I bought in June yet. I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s door-stopper The Mirror and the Light. I remember a lot of people describing this as their perfect lock-down companion. I don’t think my brain would have been able for it then. Even now I’m having trouble keeping all the chapters straight – the woman aren’t too bad, they’re using mentioned by their full name and often in relation to their husband (though there are a lot of Margarets and a lot of Janes), but the men all seem to have at least three names and a couple of titles as well. Despite my confusion, I am enjoying it. It’s not a book that can be read a couple of pages a night before bed. It needs time dedicated to it. And that’s ok, I enjoy making time to head off to Tudor England and hang out with Thomas Cromwell and his king.