2020: Reading for comfort

Which books have brought insight or consolation to academics and other university staff in this turbulent year? Our expert readers share their discoveries

December 24, 2020
Santa sweating holding a sign reading, 'Please keep your distance!'
Source: Alamy/iStock montage

Our annual round-up of winter books feels very different this year. During the lockdowns, there have been many stories of people unable to read and of others, with extra time on their hands, finally trying (and usually failing) to read Proust. So what unexpected treasures have academics and other university staff stumbled across in 2020, and where have they found insight or consolation? Did they turn to poetry or religion, seek escapism, historical parallels with today’s crisis or even books that confront the reality of the pandemic head-on? Our expert readers report on their discoveries here:

 

Nathan Abrams, professor in film at Bangor University

Two remarkable books I discovered during the pandemic focus on the activities of extraordinary and driven individuals. Although both Jewish, they occupied opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin, Ursula Kuczynski became a committed communist, a true believer in the cause. Under the code name Sonya, her life entwined danger and domesticity, as she combined being a mother and housewife with spying for the Soviet Union before and during the Second World War. As Ben Macintyre describes in Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy (Viking, 2020), she successfully eluded MI5 and numerous other intelligence services, as well as Stalin’s murderous purges, and died where she was born, aged 93, a successful children’s author.

The protagonist of Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork (Hodder and Stoughton, 2020), by contrast, was motivated by greed, capitalism and profit. As the founder and CEO of the co-working start-up WeWork, Neumann enjoyed rock-star status – revered as a prophet by millennials. He went from Israeli naval academy graduate to college dropout and immigrant on the verge of deportation before taking his place among the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs in under a decade. He went on to lose billions of dollars in one of the most humiliating attempts at a public share offering in American business history.

 


Salvatore Babones, associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney

William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is a first-hand account of the wanderings of the English Puritans known in America as the “Pilgrims”. On 21 November 1620, their ship, Mayflower, made landfall at Cape Cod. The passengers and crew immediately realised two things. First, they weren’t in Virginia, where they were supposed to be. Second, with winter fast approaching, they would have to make do wherever they actually were. So all the adult men on board (including the servants) drew up a contract to form a “civil Body Politick”: the Mayflower Compact. Signed that very day, the Compact is celebrated as the founding document of colonial self-government in what would become the United States of America.

One month later, on 21 December, the Pilgrims established their colony at a site they named Plymouth, after the last safe harbour they had left behind. Nearly half of the colonists died that first winter. The remainder survived on corn and beans looted from Native American stores. The pilgrims were prepared to trade for food, but there were no Natives to trade with. The plagues that killed them fed the Pilgrims – and founded a country.

 


Victoria Bateman, fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

What does it mean to be moral? When is morality “good”, and when is it used as a means of controlling others? And how has the notion of morality been applied differently to men and women?

These are the types of questions I have in mind while working through an old, battered and musty-smelling two-volume edition of W.E.H. Lecky’s History of European Morals. Having been penned in the 19th century, it’s not exactly at the cutting edge of modern philosophical thinking, so, to bring me up to speed, I’ve been supplementing it with Jonathan Wolf’s An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Norton, 2017) and, to add a feminist dimension, Kate Manne’s latest book, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Allen Lane, 2020).

With all the fuss over the supposedly dishonourable nature of Maggi Hambling’s new nude statue for Mary Wollstonecraft (which I find somewhat funny in light of her argument that society’s obsession with female “virtue” constrains women’s ability to live a free life), what it means to be a “respectable” woman, and how that is used to control women, has been high in my mind as I lock myself away from the world in the ivory tower.

 


Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland

The daily statistics of death have been front and centre in 2020. For many, their last days and moments have been grotesque. Despite the heroic efforts of those working in hospitals and care homes, the touch and feel of close human contact has been absent.

In the midst of such heartache and grief, it might seem odd to read a book about dying and to derive great comfort from it. But that was certainly the case for me with Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love, Loss and Consolation (Abacus, 2020).

A journalist and documentary film-maker, Clarke retrained as a doctor in her late twenties. Drawn to the patients with life-limiting illnesses precisely because some other doctors ran a mile, she entered the field of palliative medicine.

Working in a hospice means that Clarke is dealing with death on a constant basis. Yet her compassion, care and concern for the dignity and wishes of the dying shine brightly throughout in a powerful set of individual stories, including one very close to home. Both humbling and inspirational, Clarke’s message is one of light in the darkness.

There are so many powerful words and phrases in the book, but one seems particularly apposite in these times: life, somehow, wins out.

 


 Santa reading a Coronavirus book with a sign reading 'Click & collect'

Sarah Elizabeth Cox, press officer at Goldsmiths, University of London

Returning from the library as a kid with stacks of stories on double cassette in big plastic cases was a weekly highlight, but thanks to social media and a busy work schedule, I now find it impossible to concentrate on listening to anything for more than about 20 minutes. Could I use this time to retrain my brain to focus on something longer than a quick podcast? Luckily my first download – this year’s winner of the Goldsmiths Prize for “fiction at its most novel”, M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz, 2020) – has kept me gripped. In Harrison’s words, it’s a book about conspiracy theory in which you can’t tell what’s theory and what’s real. Halfway through, I haven't got a clue where this strange and unsettling tale of love, paranoia and weird builders obsessed with the Water Babies is going, but I’m in huge suspense waiting to find out. 

But my book of the year is Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex (Unbound, 2020), a hilarious, eye-opening romp through time and cultures, which debunks myths and challenges stereotypes. The photographic illustrations are jaw-dropping: you’ll never think of the Victorians as prim and proper again once you see what they were getting up to with their penny-farthings. If you need a pick-me-up you can’t put down, this is it – a beautifully produced book that is phenomenally researched and respectfully written but never takes itself too seriously.

 


Robert Eaglestone, professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London

I spent lots of lockdown time chatting on a jokey WhatsApp group with an ever-changing name (one of the in-jokes). Among the many topics that came up was Ursula Le Guin (an author loved outside the academy more than in, perhaps?). Inspired by my friends’ devotion and embarrassed by the gap in my reading, I sped through her novels with rapidly increasing admiration – until I came to Always Coming Home (Harper and Row, 1985). I read this wonderful piece of experimental writing very slowly. It’s a faux-anthropology of a future people, the Kesh, who live in what California will become, serenely told through a mixture of poems, quasi-historical accounts, novel-like stories, myths and plays.

Whatever happened to our society (“the sickness”) has left the sea level much higher, reduced human reliance on technology and utterly changed the meanings of history and progress. What remains of us (computers, an archive) is not really of interest to the Kesh, who are just...getting on with life. Their fully imagined society, with good and bad, its own weird-to-us rituals and common sense, is neither dystopian nor utopian, nor is the book apocalyptic. Instead, Always Coming Home tells us something hard to summarise but gentle and wise about more fully inhabiting our own lives and deaths.

 


Biancamaria Fontana, professor of the history of political thought at the University of Lausanne

The pandemic has given narratives about the Second World War a new poignancy. Before, they were just stories of another age; now, the accounts of the disruption of ordinary life, of insecurity and disorientation, seem far closer to home. When I first read Simone de Beauvoir’s 1943 novel L’Invitée (translated as She Came To Stay), I was captivated by the story itself: a ménage à trois set in the milieu of a Parisian theatrical company. Rereading it now, I was struck by the description of Paris at the outbreak of the war: the cafes, hotels and nightclubs where the protagonists spend their time are closed down, the boulevards become dark and deserted, the animated capital is reduced to a ghost town.

Robert Harris’ “lockdown” novel V2 (Hutchinson, 2020) tells the parallel stories of a German engineer, working with Wernher von Braun on a new ballistic missile, the V2; and an English woman volunteer, whose mission is to locate the V2 launch sites for the RAF. At the end of the novel the German engineers, having surrendered to the Allies, arrive in London. To their astonishment, contrary to the claims of Nazi propaganda, the city is still standing and they struggle to re-establish the frontier between illusion and reality.

 


Ruby Guyatt recently completed a doctorate in the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge

In June, this year – five years late, but also just in time – I discovered Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa, 2012). And soon after, inevitably, the other volumes in the Neapolitan Quartet: The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of a Lost Child.

Ferrante’s writing is not straightforwardly escapist: the Naples of friends Lenù and Lila, although sensual, is populated by misogyny, terror and violence. Yet, in 1,696 pages spanning 60 years, she pieces together the women’s near lifelong friendship in a way that implicates her reader in a way I’ve rarely experienced.

One of Ferrante’s most memorable images is that of the “dissolving boundaries” experienced by Lila, in which the world liquefies before her. Reading these Neapolitan novels (for me in Ann Goldstein’s English translation) induces such a blurring. Years collapse, cities coalesce and characters spill – into one another and off the page.

What is perhaps most absorbing and dislocating about these novels is how intimately the reader comes to know the minutiae of Lenù’s life, while also being swept up in decades-long political, national and family dramas. Ferrante’s writing feels simultaneously confessional and epic, grounding and boundless – both things I needed this year.

 


Ashley Mears, associate professor of sociology at Boston University

It was a remarkable surprise to discover Forrest Stuart’s Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy (Princeton, 2020) in August. In the midst of my pandemic-induced overconsumption of news and social media, I found this book about the social media use of young and poor black men in Chicago who seek micro-celebrity by uploading rap videos on to YouTube. The men are called “drillers”, their videos are full of violent bravado and, in pursuit of their dreams of fame (or even subsistence-level earnings) in this exploitative and sharply competitive world, they perpetuate stereotypical images of dangerous black masculinity that lead to real violence from rival gang members and the attention of law enforcement agencies. Stuart spent two years living and filming alongside drillers, who he portrays with skilful empathy in a rich narrative.

The book completely reshaped the way I thought about micro-celebrity and youth culture, and it opened my eyes to how discussions of the internet have been largely oblivious to the worlds of those who are not class-privileged, white and female. As people have been sucked ever deeper into their digital worlds in 2020, Stuart shines a light on how social media offer both hope and danger for some of our cities’ most disadvantaged young.

 


Emma Rees, professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester

Back in Lockdown 1.0, our beloved Golden Retriever, Mitzi, died. As 2020 tragedies go, it was a prosaic one, but it was one that we felt very deeply. She’d been our companion for nearly 15 years, and her absence was profoundly affecting. After her death, a fragment of poetry kept returning to me, tickling at the edges of my conscious mind, but eluding me until one day in those flatline weeks of the spring and early summer, when I was doing something completely different, I rediscovered Mary Oliver’s poem Her Grave and found the line: “A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky”. I returned to Oliver’s New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 2004) then and have done nearly every day since. Her excoriation of human foibles and self-delusion provides for me the perfect antidote to 2020. She presents the cadences and cycles of the natural world with a near-complete absence of sentimentality. Show me someone who can read Landscape (“Every morning, so far, I’m alive”), The Summer Day (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”) or When Death Comes (“I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”) without being moved, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t really grasped what 2020 means.

 


Aaron Rosen, professor of religion and visual culture at the Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC

There’s a story about the great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. As he got to middle age – sadly, he died prematurely of a neurological disease – he was asked about his deepening Jewish practice, specifically whether he donned tefillin (phylacteries) to pray. “Not yet,” he is said to have replied.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that response recently, as I’ve found myself deepening my own Jewish observance during the pandemic, using the prayers and customs of shabbat to give myself some definition of time in these meandering weeks, and also to conjure some celebratory moments for my son. Will I ever really give up lobster (I’m from Maine!) and commit to tefillin? I would have said “No” a year ago. Now I’d say “Not yet.” A modest upgrade, but perhaps spiritual progress nonetheless. The book I’ve found most nourishing these past months, to my surprise, is the siddur, the Jewish prayer book. My touchstones for puzzling out my Jewish identity remain enigmatic modern figures such as Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin and indeed Franz Rosenzweig, but in these choppy, unsteady times, I’m growing to appreciate the ballast of tradition. 

 


Santa looking through window with yellow tape over window reading 'Quarantinezone-do not enter'

Peter Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University

The first lockdown was spent in the garden, in roasting sunshine, with the seven enormous doorstops that make up C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series (Macmillan, 2003-2018). At about 5,000 pages, they kept me riveted throughout the plague months. Their protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a Henrician Inspector Morse, incisive and slightly alienated. As (in Tudor terminology) a “hunchback”, he is also the subject of withering contempt and superstition. The first volume, Dissolution, is overshadowed by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but the series becomes more exciting as it goes on. Sansom has a doctorate in Tudor history and the townscapes and local colour are as compelling as the whodunnit plots themselves.

I’ve come late to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and I’m still only halfway through The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate, 2020). But I can see what the fuss was about. The slippage between Thomas Cromwell’s internal realpolitik and his publicly uttered reassurances forces the reader into a doublethink worthy of the greatest diplomatic contortionist. The prevailing anxiety about the presiding pandemic makes it uncomfortably resonant: “The warm weather has brought the sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying...Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon” – as if proof were needed of great literature’s contemporaneity.

 


David Willetts, former minister for universities and science and a visiting professor at King’s College London

The best new account of our economic and social problems I have read this year is Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of our Own Success (Simon and Schuster, 2020). It is a well-written and rather unusual combination of Burkean conservatism and tech optimism with an undercurrent of Catholicism as well. And as escapism, or perhaps just a study in a different kind of decadence, I’ve marked the sad loss of Jan Morris by reading The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage, which came out back in 1980. It is a fascinating study of an unusual form of empire – Venetian outposts across the Mediterranean – and is as beautifully written as one would expect from her.

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