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The lockdown list: books to read during quarantine

Daily reading recommendations from The Spectator’s writers and editors

March 18, 2020

12:33 PM

18 March 2020

12:33 PM

Now we’ve got time on our freshly cleaned hands, The Spectator’s literary luminaries are lubricating the wheels on time’s wingèd chariot and seizing the chance to boost their morale and brain function, reflect on the meaning of life and catch up on a good book or six. Each day, the Lockdown List carries our bibliophilic recommendations. 

Day 16: How a Mann stays sane in the sanatorium

Robert S. Erickson

With time to kill, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A spry Hans Castorp sets off to spend three weeks visiting his cousin Joachim in a Swiss sanitarium. He stays for seven years. One hopes our present crisis won’t last so long, but as Castorp learns, there’s a funny relationship between disease and the suspicion thereof. And when illness means vacation, and that vacation looks like this — well, who could ignore a diagnosis? If wading through the daily soup of facts and figures has left you out of sorts, the rarefied atmosphere of this Alpine resort may be just the ticket. The book is long. But the hours spent reading it evaporate, as into thin air.

Robert S. Erickson is the Hilton Kramer fellow at the New Criterion and writes about theater for Spectator USA.

Day 15: Lent and Enlightment

Stuart Reid

caldwell lockdown

Alas, I have not had the energy to prepare a reading list for lockdown, but at the moment I am in the middle of Christopher Caldwell’s magnificent The Age of Entitlement — a political and social history of the United States since the Sixties. Caldwell shows that what passes for conservatism is often no more than economic liberalism, and that economic liberals have joined with social liberals to create a world of porn TV and mind-bending social media. But wait: we are not just in lockdown. We are in Lent, too. My Lenten daily reading is the Divine Office, or at least part of it — Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Often what I read, especially in the Psalms, makes me wince and whine. (‘That’s not very nice, is it?’) On the table behind me, meanwhile, I see a number of books that I have been been dipping into, among them the Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (introduced and edited by Harry Mount) and Pascal’s Pensées. Maybe I’ll get through Lent and Shutdown.

Day 14: King Lear and the Red Horse

Jane Stannus

king lear lockdown

John Gielgud as King Lear in 1940

Spring is sprung, the bird is on the wing, and The Spectator’s nobly self-quarantining public will be looking longingly out of their windows today, dreaming of warm breezes and late afternoon walks through the city. ‘From you,’ as the Shakespearean sonnet laments, ‘have I been absent in the spring…’

But stay strong, dear readers! Make friends with vernal lassitude, put your feet up and sink into a volume of poetry or catch up on a classic you’ve always meant to read. Have you already worked your way through Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and the Divine Comedy? Try Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse. An Italian bestseller after its publication in 1999, voted the greatest Italian novel of the decade, this book has been sadly overlooked by English-language readers. It’s a World War Two epic told from the unusual (to us) perspective of Italians, and it pulls no punches; although you might think war a heavy theme for these uncertain days, the darkest moments in this novel are shot through with beauty and hope. In my humble opinion, future generations will recognize The Red Horse as one of the great literary works of the 20th century.

Absent in the Spring, by Agatha Christie under the pen name of Mary Westmacott, will not go down as one of the great literary works of the 20th century — but it’s a good read nonetheless. Unlike Christie’s other works, it’s not a detective novel; it’s the story of a middle-class British woman who finds herself unexpectedly isolated in the desert and experiences a kind of epiphany as a result. But will she let this experience change her, once everyday life returns? That’s the million-dollar question…

Other recommendations? If I were stuck on a desert island, I’m one of those boring people that would want Shakespeare and the Bible — especially King Lear and the Psalms. The Psalms are exquisite, as every literary person up until a generation ago knew, and their rhythm and song shaped every influential writer in the English language. Don’t overlook them (or read them in a bad translation). Go King James if you must, but I have a weakness for the Douai-Rheims’ cascading phrases and shining imagery: ‘I know all the fowls of the air: and with me is the beauty of the field…’ Or again: ‘He shall come down like rain upon the fleece; and as showers falling gently upon the earth…’ Wistful, hopeful, rich with promise: could there be a better distillation of spring?

Jane Stannus writes about food & drink for The Spectator‘s US edition.

Day 13: War footing

Freddy Gray

kipling lockdown

Rudyard Kipling

I’m trying to read more poetry — William Blake, Eliot and I’ve been repeatedly reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’, which is great and feels apt to this crisis. I’m also reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which is weird and wonderful. Next up is W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction. Cheerful stuff.

Day 12: Race, Russians and American presidents

Chadwick Moore

princeton lockdown

A Princeton undergraduate c. 1940

We’re all guilty of those late night book buying splurges where, as titles arrive piecemeal at our door, we plop them on the bookshelf knowing a single spine won’t get cracked for months. What better time to chip away at that judgmental stack of books than during a city-wide quarantine?  The top of my heap includes three history books: Nine Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her by Brion McClanahan, an entertaining read that traces all our nation’s problems to nine highly defective men; City on a Grid: How New York Became New York by Gerard Koeppel; and Behemoth: A History of the Factory and The Making of the Modern World by Joshua B. Freeman.

In Christian books, I finally plan to read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell. For a bit of witty and delicious social critique, I’ve got Snobbery: The American Version by Joseph Epstein. And in historical fiction, I’ve been eager to dive into The Alienist by Caleb Carr a novel about a serial killer in 19th-century New York.

It’s also about time that I read In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, by national trans-racial treasure Rachel Dolezal, who documents her personal journey from blond, suburban white woman to fierce, black mama.

Browsing through my shelves, a book I’ve realized I don’t recommend nearly enough, if you’ve got just a touch of Russophilia and find yourself curious about contemporary Russia, not it’s government, put its people and national psyche, I suggest picking up Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev.

Chadwick Moore is a Spectator columnist.

Day 11: Billy Bathgate’s Bronx cheer

Sara Wheeler

doctorow lockdown

E.L. Doctorow in 2013

As I am trapped in the Bronx at present trying to get home to the UK, I am zipping through Doctorow novels and have decided he is underrated. Remember Billy Bathgate strutting though East Tremont in his crisp new shirt, or young Edgar (nearest thing Doctorow ever got to an autobiographical figure) in World’s Fair swapping out his books weekly at the library as his father’s business sinks into the swamps of the Depression?

As a habituée of the polar regions where a 10-day whiteout is not uncommon I carry with me Boswell’s Life of Johnson, unexpurgated and printed on bible paper. I reckon that will see the plague out for you.

Day 10: Roman across the centuries

Daniel McCarthy

justinian lockdown

Emperor Justinian

As it happens, I was well into a couple of big classics when the coronavirus hit. My plan was to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in full, by stages on my daily commute and on occasional trips by train or plane. I don’t suggest you spend all your quarantine time with Gibbon, but his massive masterwork can be surprisingly diverting, an emperor or two at a time. For greater pleasure, I’m reading The Red and the Black, which remains strikingly modern. It’s stunning to think Stendhal’s novel was published five years before Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: the early 19th-century French were unmatched for psychological acumen.

Lastly, partly inspired by Gibbon and partly our own civilizational collapse, I’m reading a history of three post-Roman emperors of various sorts, the historian Peter Heather’s book The Restoration of Rome, about Theoderic (neither Roman nor an emperor, but acting as a bit of both), Justinian (an actual Roman emperor of the East), and Charlemagne (who of course laid new claim to an imperial title in the West). Heather argues that the real re-establishment of the Roman West, however, was the work of the pope, another kind of successor to the emperors of old.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The Modern Age and a Spectator contributing editor and columnist. 

Day 9: Pepys over the edge

Benjamin Riley

pepys lockdown

Samuel Pepys

Prompted by my friend Clive Aslet, I am exploring the world of the diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, who lived through London’s Great Plague of 1665, decamping to Greenwich. Pepys approached the Plague like he did much of his life, with sangfroid tinged with just a hint of mischief (consider the tennis ball-sized bladder stone that, once removed, he kept in an expensive case for all to see). Pepys wrote that ‘I have never lived so merrily… as I have done this plague-time.’ And though I wouldn’t go that far about my own semi-quarantine, things could be worse. Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self  had been sitting on my shelves for some time and has become a winning companion in these trying times.

For sheer escapism, one could hardly do better than the complete works of Ronald Firbank. In his preface to my edition, which has a portrait of Firbank by Augustus John on the cover, Anthony Powell writes that ‘it is not…“fair” to the author to jog through this volume from cover to cover in a pedantic mood, then complain there are repetitions, samenesses, and a too consistent display of fireworks.’

Indeed, Firbank benefits from a more desultory approach. Take this random section from Vainglory (1915):

‘“I should hate to keep an Italian cow,” she said. “I should be afraid of it!”

“But we should be Byzantine. Just peacocks, stags and sheep…”

“The danger of Italy,” Mrs Asp observed, “is, it tends to make one florid. One expands there so… Personally, I go all to poppy-seed directly.”’

How very far away from our squalid world, and all the better for it.

Benjamin Riley is managing editor of the New Criterion.

Day 8: The way we lived

Harry Mount

alan clark lockdown

Alan Clark MP looks on as Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev hold talks at RAF Brize Norton

For my lock-in, I’m taking a mixture of light and heavy reading — a starter and a main course, if you like.

The third volume of the British Conservative politician Alan Clark’s diaries — The Last Diaries 1993-1999 (2002) — is the ideal palate-cleanser. Light, witty, compulsive with a gripping yet terrible ending. To begin with, Clark is the old rogue we’re used to — gleefully rude about his colleagues, eyeing up women, reminding himself how rich he is, regretting his decision to leave Parliament in 1992, delighted by his return in 1997 with the plum seat of Kensington and Chelsea.

But fate has other tragic plans in store for him. Clark was obsessed with his health and, like all hypochondriacs, he was eventually right — brain cancer struck. His wife Jane adds a moving coda, in the form of her diaries of his woefully weak last days when he was unable to write.

And then for the meaty main course. Shamefully, I’d never read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) until this year. What a mighty work!

There are virtuous figures in the novel but the ones who live on in the memory are the heroically caddish, drunken baronet, Sir Felix Carbury; and the appalling, bloated tycoon of a crook, Augustus Melmotte, sucked up to by the great and the good before his Ponzi scheme collapses on a vast scale. I couldn’t help liking them both a bit.

Harry Mount is editor of the Oldie.

Day 7: Little men, big ideas

Ben Sixsmith

albert camus lockdown

Albert Camus in 1948

The Plague by Albert Camus is an obvious recommendation, but I think it has profundity wrapped up in cliché. Far from being a work of existentialist miserabilism, it movingly and wittily portrays people trying to make the best of horrid circumstances. Another favorite is J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which describes a soldier acclimatizing to normal life after the horrors of World War One, and which might give us some perspective while making us look forward to summer. Finally, I recommend my friend Ed West’s funny and interesting new book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, an exploration of the lows and lows of British conservatism.

Ben Sixsmith is a Spectator contributor based in Poland.

Day 6: Look to the light

Sam Leith

iron man lockdown

Iron Man vol. 1 #14 (June 1969)

Personally, I think now is the time to comfort-read, ideally series fiction: long and entertaining and relatively unchallenging books that will take us to a happier and better world. So, the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, the short stories of Damon Runyon and Conan Doyle, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Larry Niven’s tales of Known Space, Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, big anthologies of silver-age Marvel comics. Oh, and lots of Eighties’ Stephen King. But maybe give The Stand a miss for now, eh?

Sam Leith is Books editor of the London Spectator.

Day 5: Decline of the West

Bill McMorris


Randy Boyagoda

Let’s be honest, you’re spending your time in quarantine finally making a dent on the unwatched horror B-movies on your Netflix queue. But if you want to sound impressive to other toilet-paper hoarders, you can do worse than to tell them that you read Original Prin, Randy Boyagoda’s tale of a doomed English professor. The novel opens with ‘Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.’ If you didn’t laugh at that, seek medical attention immediately. But be forewarned, there’s a virus going around.

If you’re not the type to laugh amid pandemics and mass graves, crack the spine of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Day is Now Far Spent. The African churchman takes the west to task for squandering its spiritual inheritance, for exchanging Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the freedom to watch horror B-movies and crack nihilistic jokes about pandemics and mass graves.

Memento Mori, motherfuckers

Bill McMorris is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon.

Day 4: Laughing with Lurie

Elisa Segrave

babar lockdown

From Histoire de Babar

Fined once at Key West airport for being overweight with too many American hardbacks, this February I was strict. The only hardback I brought back — then read on the plane — was light to carry and has the lightest touch: Words and Worlds, past essays by Alison Lurie, now in her nineties but very compos mentis. I loved her account of attending rehearsals of Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet in 1974 — diva Irene Worth as Gertrude — and her un-bitter description of women’s inferior status at Radcliffe compared to the ‘superior’ Harvard males and the girls’ compliance: ‘when a female classmate attempted to attract the lecturer’s attention, we raised our eyebrows or shook our heads; we considered such behavior rather pushy, possibly a sign of emotional imbalance’.

Lurie is both erudite and hilarious. There’s a large well-informed section on children’s books. ‘The Royal Family of Elephants’ begins ‘for over 70 years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world — and the most controversial. He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living……he has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist.’

There’s a short piece on ‘Zippers’: ‘the zipper revolutionized not only dressing but undressing — and in the process changed relations between the sexes’.

Her last essay ‘Life After Fashion’ contains nuggets of wisdom: ‘an aging woman with bright-red lipstick, especially when it has leaked into the little, otherwise invisible lines round her lips, can look like an elderly vampire, or worse. She can become the sort of terrifying figure that the Ancient Mariner saw on the death ship.’

I laughed out loud several times during my reading.

My American cousin lent me a big paperback collection of Alice Adams’s short stories, which I’d never read. These were both comforting and intellectually satisfying. Many are set in the invented town of Hilton (based partly on Adams’s youth in Chapel Hill, North Carolina), others in Mexico or California. One aspect that struck me was how Americans love to re-marry; several tales were about couples on their second or even third marriages. I managed to finish the last story the night before I flew back to London.

Day 3: Approaching the Montaigne

Jay Elwes

georges simenon lockdown

Georges Simenon in 1973

One of the great self-isolators was Michel de Montaigne, who locked himself away in his estates in horror at the depredations of the Wars of Religion. No fighter, Montaigne’s response was to pick up his pen. The resulting Essays were revelatory, a coruscating exercise in philosophical skepticism that form a cornerstone of western thought. The complete works run to about 900 pages, and the whole thing crackles with brilliance, wit and insight.

Someone else who knew a thing or two about isolation was Cervantes, who in 1575 was abducted by Barbary pirates and held captive for five years, poor man. Don Quixote is another 900-pager, but my-oh-my it doesn’t feel like it. The thing about Cervantes is that he’s just so very funny, funny in a way that even now, after all these centuries, just sings from the page. It’s a joyous, wonderful, absurd and very modern-seeming book. Freud loved it so much, he taught himself Spanish to read it in the original. I have never enjoyed a novel quite as much.

Fancy something shorter, sharper, and much chillier? Then try Endless Night by Agatha Christie. There’s no theatricality to this one, just brilliantly-worked suspense and masterful control. If you’re after something darker still, try The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon, a brutal analysis of a wartime collaborator’s moral vacuity. There’s a cold, ruthless beauty to Simenon’s writing.

But if it’s escapism you’re after, then you have only to reach for P.G. Wodehouse. Summer Lightning and Something Fresh will take you far out of self-isolation to Blandings Castle and to a land of pure joy.

Jay Elwes is a novelist and journalist.

Day 2: The books to end all wars

Jeremy Clarke

mons lockdown

Wounded British and Belgian soldiers retreat from Mons

The History of the Great War from Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Committee of the Imperial Defence is an account of the war effort of the British state between 1914 and 1918, written for the enlightenment of the general public in 109 volumes. I am beginning with those volumes concerning the Western Front, subtitled France and Belgium — two for each war year — compiled and narrated by Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds (1861-1956).

Edmonds’s classmates at the Army Staff College, Camberley included Douglas Haig (commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front), Edmund Allenby (conqueror of Jerusalem) and William Robertson (Chief of the Imperial Staff in 1916.) As a child living in France, Edmonds had witnessed the events surrounding the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and was thereafter a lifelong student of the German army. He spoke several European and Asiatic languages and was regarded as the leading Army intellectual of his day. He is also is credited as a founder the British Secret Service. His articulate soldierly voice, describing terrible slaughter without undue emphasis or emotion, is a great comfort and escape in these upended times, I find. His two 1914 volumes, covering the Battle of Mons and the Retreat can be downloaded from the web.

Jeremy Clarke is The Spectator’s Low Life correspondent.

Day 1: Plants, professors and parsons

Jacob Heilbrunn


German composer Robert Schumann

What could be more timely and liberating than Stefano Mancuso’s The Incredible Journey of Plants? In this exhilarating new book from Other Press, the eminent Italian neurobiologist shows that plants are an unstoppable force, the greatest colonizers of all as they travel to every nook and cranny of the globe, intent on setting up shop wherever and whenever they can.

Then there is Adam Sisman’s The Professor and the Parson, a riveting tale about Robert Parkin Peters, a gifted imposter in the tradition of Baron Corvo and Trebitsch Lincoln who crossed paths with scholarly luminaries such as Hugh Trevor-Roper. He invented lofty scholarly credentials and wriggled his way into a series of academic and religious positions in America, Canada and the United Kingdom. Exposure always came sooner or later but he achieved a kind of immortality that he could never dreamed of achieving had he been a conventional academic. Sisman tells this delectable tale with such flair that it is almost impossible not to savor his account of Peters’s exploits in a single sitting.

When it comes to Trevor-Roper, I find myself dipping into his Wartime Journals, expertly edited by Richard Davenport-Hines. Davenport-Hines’s suave introduction alone is worth the price of admission and Trevor-Roper’s entries, by turn gossipy and bitchy, illuminating and profound, are always a treat to peruse.

Bonus entries: Judith Cherniak’s superb biography of Robert Schumann, Oliver Sacks’s On the Move and an oldie but goodie, Alan Jefferson’s biography of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest and a contributing editor to The Spectator’s US edition.

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