Books are my only true escape since lockdown stopped me travelling

I’ve read 28 books this year. It was a New Year’s resolution to read a book a week and it’s the only one, incidentally, that I’ve ever kept

Rachael Revesz
Saturday 08 August 2020 12:18
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Shelf life: one in three of us are reading more during lockdown
Shelf life: one in three of us are reading more during lockdown

“If you seek comfort, you don’t explore the world.” I wrote this sentence down in my diary a few years ago. I’m not sure where it came from. It wasn’t Proust or Joyce, it may have been Ben Fogle. Nonetheless, it was the mantra I adopted when I moved to New York for work, and many other times when I have felt anxious about change.

This year has brought all kinds of change, but not much of it in terms of our geographic location. Back in my hometown of North Berwick, the nearest I can get to exploring the world is when I don my wetsuit and trek down to the local beach, and my hand brushes seaweed or jellyfish. That alone is enough to make me be glad to come home and get a cup of tea.

If we can’t explore, how can we escape? The concept of escapism has taken on a whole new meaning after months of lockdown. I now listen to a ridiculous number of podcasts, and I’m onto season four of The Real Housewives of New York City (eight more seasons to go), but none of those can drag me that far away from the horror show of this year.

For me, reading has been the only true escape. I’ve read 28 books this year. I’m not bragging; it was a New Year’s resolution to read a book a week and it’s the only one, incidentally, that I’ve ever kept. That’s saying something for a person who is so into making resolutions that I recently discovered a list of not only mine but of all my school friends and their partners from a New Year’s dinner three years ago.

It’s no surprise then, that I like activities which mark the passing of time. And in the huge expanse of time that is this year, a handful of books is one way of delineating March from April and July from August. And I don’t think I’m the only one – a survey released in April from The Reading Agency found one in three of us were reading more during lockdown.

For hardcore New Year’s resolution makers, reading doesn’t sound like much of an achievement. It’s hardly aiming to be the next Steve Jobs, or to cure cancer. Yet it has been surprisingly hard work. With a mountain of content to consume, work to do or dishes to wash, a book is not the natural priority. When my brain is fried from staring at a screen and my concentration span has sunk in on itself and feels like a shrivelled grape inside my skull, the only thing I often feel able to read are the subtitles on a YouTube clip. During those times, it feels like a gargantuan task to sit down and pick up a book. I’ve come to think of reading as a muscle that needs flexing regularly, just as I would with exercise, maths of any other kind of skill. As a teenager I used to whizz through anything by Jane Austen or the Brontes without a second thought, now I need to force myself to do it.

The reward is worth the effort. I couldn’t go outdoors much in March, April and May, but I could read the wonderful descriptions of the Slad valley in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, or of the Yorkshire dales in Winifred Holtby’s Anderby Wold. I couldn’t go to Cannes, but I can read Francoise Sagan’s account of chic, golden skin and blue waters in Bonjour Tristesse. My time machine has taken me all over the place, too: into the lives of 19th-century women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, as documented in Hallie Rubenhold’s incredible book, The Five, or over the snowy mountains bordering Poland alongside Second World War spy Christine Granville, as told by Claire Mulley in The Spy Who Loved.

Even the New York housewives with their cosmetic procedures and fall-outs can’t distract me to the same extent – God love ‘em. As we ease out of lockdown and enter some kind of normal life, reading a book a week is one new habit I hope never to give up.

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