Books in the time of coronavirus

Phil Shaw’s Shelf Isolation 2

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis many of us have resorted to fiction for consolation, distraction and information.

Myself, I have generally avoided harrowing dystopian tales, inventive novels about conspiracies, and books about personal tragedies — there’s enough of all this in real life which I can access through print, social and broadcast media.

Instead I have gone for more optimistic fiction, whatever ends in what Tolkien dubbed eucatastrophe, the upbeat ending, instead of the catastrophic conclusions where hearts hang heavy and melancholy pertains.

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⬆️ Medieval PPE, ancient and modern

Largely that has meant children’s fiction and fantasy. I am steadily working my way through Maria Sachiko Cecire‘s fascinating Re-Enchanted (University of Minnesota Press 2019), subtitled The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, finding insights on every page about the positive nature of modern fantasy along with some of the less salubrious aspects that rear their head — anglocentrism, imperialism, racism, and sexism, for example. While I have recently questioned the charge of escapism sometimes levelled at these genres (indeed at literature in general) I was grateful to have the chance to consider the other -isms in more detail.

But for now, let me consider the current Covid-19 buzzwords that are going the rounds — social distancing (‘physical distancing’ is perhaps better), self-isolating, contagion and pandemic — and relate them to a few novels I’ve read over the years (links are to review-discussions).

First, social distancing and self-isolation aren’t new. Robert Carse‘s The Castaways:
A Narrative History of Some Survivors from the Dangers of the Sea details several who were (usually) forcibly separated from fellow humans, many literally ‘cast away’ on the open ocean or marooned on an island. But it can also happen that one can become isolated (the word is from Italian isola, an island) somewhere landlocked. This is the case with the protagonist in Robert C O’Brien‘s famous Z for Zachariah: in this meditation on solitude the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust, holed up in a mid-Western valley in the States, finds her refuge hasn’t insulated her from an intruder who, remarkably, seems to have avoided death from radiation sickness.

The main character in Agatha Christie‘s Absent in the Spring is also, after a fashion, forced to self-isolate and in so doing does what many of us may be contemplating, how long will this last, and when it does what does the future hold? Yet her isolation comes not from a nuclear winter but from the lack of a train connection, being sick at heart a result of soul-searching, not infection.

Contrast her with the titular character in Philippa Pearce‘s Tom’s Midnight Garden: he goes into quarantine with older relatives to escape being infected by his brother, who has contracted the very infectious measles virus. The story is set in 1958, ten years before a measles vaccine was available in the UK; still, he’s curiously reluctant to return home once the danger is past.

Corona typewriter, Book-ish café, Crickhowell

We’re social-distancing now to avoid a particular contagion, obviously. I read Albert CamusLa Peste many years ago, before I began reviewing, but that’s apparently one of the go-to novels flying off the virtual bookshelves at the moment, along with Boccaccio’s Decameron and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But there are other significant fictions about plague of one kind or another.

I called P D James‘s The Children of Men a disturbing dystopia, a “critique of totalitarianism masquerading as a benevolent despotism, of privilege assuming it has a right to power, of religion distorted into the worst forms of superstition.” Sound vaguely familiar? Though the main events occur in 2021, crucial to the plot is the sudden drop to zero of male sperm counts around the world in the year 1995, through no known agency (though most likely due to a virus, I suspect). The author’s centenary is celebrated this August, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work this might be a good place to start. A future pandemic which also creates infertility is a trigger for Eifion Jenkins‘s future dystopia If You Fall I Will Catch You, set in the years following 2084 (aptly, 100 years after the date chosen for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four).

You’ll have realised that my title is a not so covert reference to Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, though I haven’t yet read it; it includes a play on words (cholera in Spanish is cólera, which can also translate as passion). I have however read his novella Of Love and Other Demons, which includes a girl bitten by a rabid dog. Though she survives she infects many others with a whole range of passions, mainly because of the fact that, as well as recovering from rabies with no ill effects, she is somehow perceived as strange, as different, as abnormal and therefore some kind of threat to society, to religion, to propriety.

A different kind of pestilence rages in Rome at the conclusion to Henry James‘s novella Daisy Miller, namely malaria, caused by a mosquito parasite and sometimes called ‘the Roman fever’ (which is also the title of one of Edith Wharton’s short stories). However, the contagion in Michael Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain is due not to an earth-borne virus but to an extraterrestrial micro-organism from a meteor crashing into a returning spacecraft. On our planet’s surface it attacks humans by clotting their blood, causing instant death. It also mutates…


Before you get too freaked you might like to smile at my recreation of PPE for medieval quacks, or reread the titles in Phil Shaw‘s Shelf Isolation 2 (photo above) in sequence. I tried something similar to Shaw’s artwork on Twitter, and if you’re at a loose end you might like to try your hand as well — though probably with more success.

Emotionally weird

It reads

“Emotionally weird, I shall wear midnight behind the scenes at the museum.” Hunted down, Titus awakes, changing planes in strangest Europe. “The Secret of this book? Understanding English place-names of giants. How to stop time? Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

28 thoughts on “Books in the time of coronavirus

  1. Let me add to your list the most shocking novel I’ve read on this theme: Saramago’s ” On Blindness”. I came across this book last summer and I can’t still get off my mind, considering the times we are living, that gloomy, pessimistic but so real vision of humanity. Worth reading, but only once.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think I might leave considering the Saramago till after this crisis is over, Stefy, my own pessimism is hard enough to bear as it is without adding a more depressing outlook. But I shall certainly investigate!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Being distracted by books is a sure way to sharpen one’s appetite — until ravenous hunger kicks in of course. Eagerly anticipating your titular composition, Gert, hopefully with a visual aid..,

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like a recommendation, Jeanne! Sadly, I have One Hundred Years of Solitude to read first — another title replete with relevance to current events and reputedly a novel about history repeating itself, sadly also relevant to current events. Also, I forgot to mention (someone prompted me on Twitter) Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death: I think I’ll read that next, it’s quite short…

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  2. I’ve somehow missed that PD James. It sounds interesting, I’ll have to add it to that unending list I’ve got. I like your version of the Shaw artwork, it looks like a tempting pass-time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As ever, I’d be interested if and when you get to the P D James, Cath. The film, with Julianne Moore and Clive Owen among others, was differently focused but I enjoyed it and would watch it again.

      My feeble #TitlesTellTheTale attempt is a variation on what’s called ‘spine poetry’ elsewhere on social media, but it seems to require a goodly range of fiction with quirky titles to really work, a range I’m somewhat lacking.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I think it’s a fortuitous pun on ‘spam poetry’, that genre inspired by what used to end up in our email (and latterly WordPress) spam folder. However, the quality of spam comments has sadly been descending to depths that barely warrant a second glance. This 👉🏻 https://wp.me/p2oNj1-19C may enlighten or at least inform…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    Re-Enchanted sounds like a fascinating book! Is adult fantasy (and science fiction) really so pessimistic, though? I don’t come across real pessimism all that often, and probably less in fantasy than sf. To add to your list of books about plagues, there’s Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (time travel seems to be the only sf-nal element here, so is it fantasy or sf?) and Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (this one has aliens landing on earth, so definitely sf). Both are set during the Black Death, and actually both are more optimistic than you’d expect, I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I largely agree with your argument, Beth. I think the point of view Re-Enchanted is taking (and I’m only halfway through at the moment) is that fantasy is a glorious genre but like everything it helps to look around the back and see if what holds it up is as glorious as the face it presents.

      Much fantasy is optimistic: to take two examples, I’ve just read a middle grade novel The Strangeworlds Travel Agency which (spoiler alert!) ends happily, the eucatastrophe of Tolkien’s terminology, and am racing through Charles G Finney’s The Magician Out of Manchuria which is comic fantasy through and through and thorough fun. Even Wyrd & Wonder’s readalong, The Goblin Emperor follows the expected pattern of advance and setback, again and again, until a magnificent and hoped-for (but expected) positive resolution (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-maia).

      As for SF, this is a genre that can be less predictable in its outcomes in my limited experience, when even a eucatastrophe may be tinged with sadness, regret, despair, like a new seedling struggling through in a toxic wasteland.
      But I bow to better- and wider-read aficionados like yourself! I’ve heard of but not read both of the authors you’ve mentioned so will make a note of those titles, even if I have no idea when I might get round to them!

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      1. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

        I don’t think I have heard of Finney. Sounds like a great book! I’m not sure how much difference there is between adult and children’s fantasy as far as optimism goes, except that the really
        relentlessly grim stuff — what is known as grimdark– is targeted at adults, I guess.

        For science fiction, a few years back there was a great article on optimism and pessimism in science fiction in the LA Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-warm-equations/
        It deals mostly with 2 books from 2015, and I think it avoids saying too much about the plot twists, which I can tell is tricky (I’ve read both of them).

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        1. I’ll have a look at that LA Review presently — thanks for the link! — it sounds interesting. As for Finney, I think he’s best known for The Circus of Doctor Lao (my review’s here https://wp.me/s2oNj1-lao), apparently sometimes regarded as dark fantasy — but I guess not grimdark — though I felt it was more comic than that.

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  4. After rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I want to reread Love in the times of cholera, but as you point, I also don’t want to read something too close to reality. I have been recommended Station Eleven before Covid, but not now.

    Btw, I am reading a PD James mystery and loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So much to read, Silvia, and so much of worth too. You’re not the only one to mention Station Eleven as presaging what’s happening now but I’m trying hard not to neglect what I’ve already got on my shelves (as I may have possibly mentioned before) before I splurge out on too many more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I thought I had read all the PD James but now I discover I missed one.

    Enjoyed your version of the Shelf Isolation photo. I know if I had a go at that, all the books would have to come off the shelves and then I would get distracted…..
    One “pandemic” novel to add to your list – Station Eleven by Emily St Mandel – imagines a world affected by a flu pandemic which leaves the remaining tiny population coping without electricity and meagre food supplies. It sounds bleak but it’s not ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Emily St Mandel novel has been mentioned on social media a few times recently, and also by Silvia above, but unless it falls into my lap I’m not in a hurry to read it yet. As it is real life feels like an unfolding novel, what with disturbing emerging facts, blustering from politicians and pundits, and the individual human tragedies which are distressing enough. But I’ll take your word that the novel isn’t bleak!

      Thanks for appreciating my book spine photo. I don’t read read enough general fiction to make my spine poetry and spine stories really effective — they are much more varied than those on the classics, fantasy and kidslit that I’ve tended to read!

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  6. Pingback: A book-spine poem | Cath Humphris

  7. Love this playful and engaging post, Chris. (shelf isolation was such fun and how did you make that clever medieval PPE slideshow?) I suppose it’s not surprising how many books are set in a period of quarantine of some kind, since it is a time when the ordinary routines of life are suspended and adventures of all kinds are rife. The idea of contagion is terrifying, but can also be thrilling. I thought right away of Winter Holiday, one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, when the children get a reprieve on returning to school because they must quarantine for mumps. But I’m sure there are many more, though probably not many that are as benign. And by the way, speaking of getting bitten by a rabid dog, who can forget Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Last things first: I don’t know the Hurston so I’m not in the position to forget it! But I will check it out now.

      Glad you liked the post. The slideshow is an option when you select two or more images from your media to insert in a WP post: they can either go separately, be presented in tile fashion (when viewed in the web version) or presented as a continuous slideshow. (One of the PPE images was a selfie with me in a Venetian commedia dell’arte mask, I’ll leave you to guess which one!)

      I’m ashamed to say I haven’t ventured into Swallows and Amazons territory, mainly because I now know if I started I’d have to obsessively continue with the whole series. Some time…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. How exciting. I’ve just discovered your blog. I googled “kemare head over sea under stone” searching for a map as I am enjoying Susan Cooper’s series more than I ever did CS Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman, or Rowling. Found your coverage then had a look at what else you’ve been writing about and found some of your thoughts on Children of Men that I read in college when a sci-fi professor tossed a couple paperbacks out into his class 20+ years ago. More recently I read Cover Her Face for a book club assignment… but only today did you make me realize they’re both written by P.D. James. I can’t begin to explain how I’d failed to realize this previously… but you’re the reason I finally figured it out. Love what you’re doing!

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    1. That’s lovely to hear, Atticus, thank you. I’m only steadily revisiting the Susan Cooper titles but this time trying to also go below the surface of the narrative, as in most of the stuff I now read. And if others are happy to share these thoughts so much the better!

      As for P D James, I seem to have only read the titles she is marginally less famous for and none of the Dalgliesh titles at all! I shall have to remedy that some time.

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  9. Consarnit, my library doesn’t have “Re-Enchanted.” I’ll just have to keep my eyes open for it…or maybe my university can get a hold of an e-book version…but I do like your theme running through here. I’ve actually got a WIP from long ago that I’m tempted to dig back up that also has its own plague that brings out the best in but a few, the worst in far too many.

    Liked by 1 person

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