What we’re reading at a time of a Pandemic

By Maham Uzair

In the past year, the simple act of returning to the arms of the ones we love – unmasked and unfettered – has been out of the question for many within the Pakistani diaspora; naturally, at a time such as this, arts and culture have provided a much-needed salve. The past year, artists have serenaded us with music online; chefs have ignited our culinary curiosity on Instagram; bereft of family and friends, our books, in particular, have been constant companions.

We’re witnessing a dramatic resurgence in reading as anxiety levels hit the highest in a generation and people mute their Whatsapp chats and social media updates. The first thing I did a few days into the lockdown was to detox from panic-inducing Whatsapp forwards and dig up Victorian classics from my bookcase in my parents’ home (where I happened to be staying around the time).

A return to the classics

It turned out I wasn’t the only one to pick up a nineteenth-century novel in 2020 and 2021. There’s been a surge of interest in the classics, as people look to the familiar as succour during hard times. Readers turned to a bucket-list of books they’d been meaning to read or re-read; naturally, lockdown lent the ideal opportunity to sink into an armchair without distractions.

Asra Khan, a voracious reader, read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which had been a part of her wish list for years. She also re-read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s most notable work, but this time, from a fresh perspective.

One of the key plotlines in the novel featured a woman, Bertha Mason, who suffers from severe mental illness. Considered beyond psychiatric help, however little there was at the time, she was locked up in the attic to be supervised by a nurse. Her apparent lunacy was treated as inseparable from her disposition, which also served as a foil to Eyre’s own character. It comes as no surprise that Mason, who happened to be the incumbent Mrs. Rochester, was also an impediment to Eyre’s dreams of wedding Mr. Rochester.

“The last time I read [Jane Eyre] I was more involved in the romance between Jane Eye and Mr. Rochester and I remembered not thinking much of the first wife, except as a nuisance,“ says Khan. “But this time I was so moved by that character. I was wondering what the story would be from her point of view. What is her fault?”

What Khan said resonated deeply. I know of so many people, including myself, who grappled with a spectrum of mental health issues following periods of isolation from family and friends last year. At the risk of sounding callous, couldn’t many of us now empathise with and humanise in some way the almost archetypal ‘mad woman in the attic’ in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature?

Rebecca, also comes to mind, a character deemed mad by her husband, but someone I just saw as a misfit of her time. Her spectre loomed across the estate of Manderley in the eponymous novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (Although Du Maurier wrote the novel from the perspective of the new mistress of Manderley, I felt a pulsating, scorching sense of injustice and the deepest affinity with Rebecca; in fact, such was the injustice, it seemed that even in death, Rebecca couldn’t rest, and while we saw no evidence of a spirit, her presence manifested itself to psychologically torment dwellers of the estate.)

Another pattern publishers have observed is even the newer, best-selling books flying off the shelves and topping bestseller lists are set in the past. Where The Crawdads Sing, for instance, narrates a tale of the coast of North Carolina in the 1952.

And it makes sense. There’s comfort in retreating to a different period in time, and mechanically following the specific structure period literature presents. I sense the coziness and familiarity are the equivalent of coffee and a fuzzy throw during Monsoon season.

In terms of my own re-reading, on revisiting Jane Austen at a time when outdoor spaces, patios, porticos have suddenly became highly coveted, I learned the author’s work is as much about the outdoors, countryside walks, brambles and viewpoints as it is about romance and obsessing over the opposite sex. A key point in the plot of Mansfield Park involves a privileged young woman on a tour of a country estate, abandoning her fiancée to sneak off with a flirtatious lothario beyond a locked gate. The betrayal is the perfect climax to pages and pages of idling through the countryside.

(I’ve also realised why reading Mansfield Park during my teenage years has been wiped completely from memory. It’s because all the supporting characters with their dalliances and delicious sinfulness cannot lend the weight the novel desperately requires from its protagonist and leading romance, both of which are insipid at best!)

A surge in interest in plague literature

It’s also been insightful for a bibliophile to see what others have been reading. Anam Dada, an old classmate from school and former tutor at Durham University, where she taught medieval literature, historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, says,  “Essentially, I’ve been trying to get through the books that I’ve had on my reading list for years,” she says.

But she also talks in depth about the swell in global interest in plague literature and how many are turning to it to draw comparisons between past outbreaks, such as the Bubonic Plague, to current times. Having thoroughly immersed herself in the scholarly study of medieval times, however, she feels skeptical of surface comparisons. ‘The similarities tend to be superficial rather than concrete,” she says. “But it is human nature for people to try and find comfort in parallels during a time of crisis.”

“Plague Literature such as Boccacio’s Decameron does provide those parallels to small groups of people huddling together in a remote location, trying to pass the time through storytelling.”

She continues in cautioning the comparing of what’s happening now with the Black Death.

“One of the most important reasons I think it is difficult to draw parallels is because we have a lot of knowledge about the virus than people had about the Black Death, for instance. We have preventative measures and we have a lot of protection against it.”

Vast dissimilarities in the centuries and pathology of two very different diseases, however, didn’t stop Camus’s The Plague from becoming a sell-out on Amazon in first quarter of 2020.

An insatiable appetite for crime

We’d imagine people steering away from thrillers and the crime genre during anxiety-inducing times, but quite the opposite happened in 2020 and 2021. Crime and True Crime novel revenues surged for publishers, driven by a demand for compelling stories.

One could speculate crime novels often have a very formulaic beginning, middle and end, with a neatly wrapped conclusion and after lockdown upon lockdown, the certain guarantee of an ending is no doubt comforting, even in a book.

Javeria Fatima Zaidi, chose the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larrson as her lockdown companion. And I can see why: Nordic noir, the crème de la crème of the modern Crime genre has all the elements for escapism the reader was looking for: a dramatic Nordic-scape; riveting writing; complex, fleshed-out characters. 

But for many readers, there is also a sense of schadenfreude, a comfort that while there is malice lurking outside, we are safely ensconced in our homes, even if it’s a forcibly enforced curfew of sorts. And even if the malevolent disease is life threatening, it’s certainly not the same as a face-off with a sociopathic serial killer.

In all this, it’s easy to understand why Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing has been a resounding success worldwide. Critics have said it does in a way classify as historical fiction as it’s based in a time prior to the Civil Rights Movement. There are elements of compelling storytelling with a whodunit mystery driving the plot. And while the book has nothing to do with a plague or pandemic, the protagonist’s deep sense of isolation in the marshes, driven in part by circumstantial loneliness as well as an affinity with a swamp habitat, stirred something in readers. As I peruse Liberty Books’ online bookstore for The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, I pause and reflect on other books on my wish list, names I’ve been feverishly scribbling down for weeks: Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. What’s also on the list is Wide Sargasso Sea, a feminist retelling of Bertha Mason’s story by Dominican-British author Jean Rhys. I’m not sure I’m ready to tear apart the read-by-the-fire, love-story narrative of Jane Eyre: it’s been too comforting a read. Perhaps when we’re back in the warm embraces of loved ones, and the world is ostensibly a safer place.

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