Never a better time to discover the joy of words: Top books to read during lockdown
You’ll never be without a friend if you have a good book.
At times of great happiness or sorrow, of joy or depression, books will offer companionship and support, a sense of perspective and a friend who leads the way.
To steal from the Oxford-educated essayist Logan Pearsall Smith: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” And as we prepare ourselves for a long-time in lockdown, books have never been more relevant.
I decided I wanted to write for a living at the age of 13. Two paper rounds a day convinced me it might be possible, newspapers needed writers, right?
In truth, the seed had been sewn at the age of five. That’s when my parents returned home from my first parent-teacher evening with the views of my teachers still ringing in their ears.
I’d been so afraid that I’d hid under a living room table. But they’d offered only positive remarks, particularly from an English teacher who told them my imagination seemed to go too quickly for my mind.
At school, I wrote voraciously – while friends were handing in two-page essays in English Language, I was penning 35-page novellas. For fun. As you do.
And books were always there to lead the way. During my mid-20s, I became obsessed, reading 27 books in a single year as I soaked up knowledge and opinion, insight and thought.
In the same way people rush home to see a loved one, play with a puppy or marvel at a new baby, I’d drive home to immerse myself in a book.
The result was a new set of friends. I’d look at books and be grateful for the lessons they’d taught, fun they’d provided and journeys they’d taken me on.
So as we all look ahead to lives irrevocably changed by covid-19, it’s time to rediscover the joy of words. All of us will spend more time at home during the coming year, almost all of us (NHS staff excluded) will have more time on our hands.
There’s never been a better time to rediscover the joy of words...
John Steinbeck – East of Eden
Steinbeck is my favourite author. It would be easier to write a list of 10 favourite Steinbeck books than to feature other authors.
My brother got me into the great American writer by gifting a copy of Cannery Row. I loved it so much I flew to California and visited the street that inspired it.
Steinbeck mixed ribald humour with piercing insight, the struggles of ordinary folk with devastating social commentary.
Though I loved his Log From The Sea of Cortez, and though others might choose such obvious hits as The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, his ambitious 1952 novel East of Eden did it for me.
His magnum opus, explored self-destruction and guilt, love and acceptance in a narrative that echoed the biblical Cain and Abel. It was a masterpiece.
Jean-Dominique Bauby – Diving Bell And The Butterfly
We don’t know what we have until what we have is gone.
That’s the lesson from memoirist Jean-Dominique Bauby in his short 1997 best-seller that later became a film.
The former Editor-in-Chief of French Elle wrote the book after suffering a stroke and becoming paralyzed with locked-in syndrome.
He dictated it by blinking his left eyelid over a period of ten months – a process that took 200,000 blinks.
Remembering a happy life and the things we all take for granted, Bauby died two days after the book was published.
There are few finer remembrances of the joys of life.
Helen Macdonald – H is for Hawk
An unflinching account of grief, H is for Hawk is distinguished writing about our relationship with nature.
Writer Helen Macdonald decided to become a falconer following the death of her father.
She bought a goshawk and in her poetic book tells the story of its taming and her own untaming.
The words soar like a raptor on the thermals. It is visceral, ingenious and captivating.
Dostoyevsky – Crime And Punishment
I toyed with a few works by Dostoyevsky and while The Brothers Karamazov was truly astounding, Crime and Punishment remains a favourite.
The book was so challenging that is was frequently hurled across the room or bent in two.
By the time I’d finished the story about Raskolnikov, a former student who commits murder, the book was only held together by cellotape.
A stunning book of redemption and danger, it was his finest masterpiece.
Graham Swift – Waterland
Few people write so poetically as Graham Swift. His 1983 novel from the Fens, in East Anglia, preceded his Booker Prize-winning Last Orders, 13 years later.
Waterland told the story of lock-keeper Tom Crick as he explored the way our personal histories influence our lives.
Julian Barnes – Flaubert’s Parrot
My introduction to the brilliant Julian Barnes came via his breakthrough novel.
It tells the story of amateur Flaubert expert Geoffrey Braithwaite who mused on his subject’s life while trying to find the stuffed parrot that had inspired the great author.
It led to a passion for Barnes and I quickly consumed his works, from Metroland to Love, etc.
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
There are those who when asked to name their three favourite books say: Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.
Many consider it the greatest work of literature ever and it features a dozen major characters in a tale that deals with betrayal and faith, family and marriage, Russian society and desire, rural life and city life.
An inspirational book – it encouraged me to visit his house in Tula, near Moscow, it is arguably the greatest ever emotional drama.
Thomas Hardy - Tess of the D’Urbervilles
So good, I read it twice. The brilliant Dorset novelist provided succour during sixth form years as we ploughed our way through Tess.
A tragedy that focused on Victorian mores, the loss of innocence, destructive desires and the pitiful fortune of women in generations past, Tess remains a dark, foreboding book.
It told the story of a central character who are ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
Ivan Turgenev - Fathers and Sons
Julian Barnes led me to Turgenev’s one of the most acclaimed Russian novels of the 19th century.
A casual reference in one of Barnes’ books led me to seek it out and read his conflict between generations.
As potent today as it was in 1862, it talked of humanity and liberty, of the bravery to overturn convention and strike out with new ideas.
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
I’ve travelled to India. Though I didn’t enjoy it as much nor travel as far as I did while reading Vikram Seth’s epic novel.
At 1,349 pages and 591,552 words it is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language. Reading it required commitment.
And yet that commitment was rewarded by joyous tales of a new India.
The tale of Lata’s attempts to find a suitable husband was at the heart of one of the most compelling books of the late 20th century.
Critics said it was so good that it would keep readers company for their rest of their lives. In my case, it has.
An eclectic list featuring comedy, travel, reportage and twists and turns keeps Heather Large happy as she selects five all-time favourite books to enjoy...
Tony Hawks - Round Ireland With A Fridge
It started as a drunken bet and turned into a wonderfully silly adventure.
In this true story comedian Tony Hawks attempts to win £100 from his friend by hitch-hiking around the circumference of Ireland, with a fridge, in just a month.
It doesn’t take long before Tony and his electrical friend have become celebrities as they capture the hearts of the public.
It’s a heart-warming tale and Tony is great at describing the different characters he meets along the way and you can tell he’s genuinely taken aback by the kindness of the strangers who offer him help during his travels.
Cecilia Ahern - One Hundred Names
This is definitely a book that’s hard to put down with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing.
Journalist Kitty Logan’s career has been destroyed by a scandal but with the help of her dear friend Constance she begins to unravel a mystery.
She has a list of 100 names given to her by her mentor but with no explanation or clues about what connects them.
Eager to discover how they are linked in the hope of writing a story as a tribute to her friend, believing it was one of her unfinished projects, she starts to track them down one by one.
It’s both funny and touching and it really draws you in.
Dominic Holland - The Ripple Effect
When profit hungry developers threaten his town and set their sights on his beloved football club for their next money-making project – baker Bill Baxter is not happy.
He vents his frustration by deliberating neglecting to put jam into a batch of doughnuts.
It sets off a chain reaction he could never have imagined as he fights to save the club from the grasp of the developers.
If you’re a football fan, it’s hard not to care about Bill’s plight. It’s an easy read and provides some much-needed light relief.
Cheryl Strayed - Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found
Following the death of her mother and the break-up of her marriage, the 26-year-old embarked on a life-changing 94-day solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon, and into Washington state.
It’s certainly not an easy journey but she forges ahead determined not to let any difficulties beat her and as she does she finally finds peace.
It’s told with exceptional honesty and self-deprecating humour but her writing is also so vivid that you feel like you are standing on the mountainside with her.
Frank Gardner - Blood and Sand
I never knew the full story about what had happened to the BBC security correspondent until I began reading this book.
In 2004, gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers were ambushed by Islamist gunmen in Saudi Arabia.
Simon was killed outright. Frank was hit in the shoulder and leg before being shot a further four times at point-black range as he lay on the ground. He was left partly paralysed.
The book starts with the immediate aftermath of the attack before going back in time to his school and university days.
It then tracks the start of his career and his time in the Middle East before the events leading up to that fateful day.
The second part of the book deals with his long road to recovery and learning to accept a new way of life.
At times it was tough to read, mainly because I knew it was a true story, but I just couldn’t stop reading.
It’s a very open account that pulls you in and despite it detailing a tragic event that changed his life forever, it’s incredibly warm at the same time especially when he’s talking about the friends he’s made and his love for the Arabic language and culture.
George R.R.Martin leads Dan Morris’s list of books for lockdown. The man whose books led to Game of Thrones is one of the world’s most popular authors...
George R.R.Martin - A Song of Ice and Fire (Volumes 1-5)
Game of Thrones may be over for good, but the source material is here to help us through lockdown.
A superb fantasy series with a depth of detail that demands time and attention – perfect for this period of isolation.
You may not want to return to the real world again.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - Watchmen
I’m hoping lockdown will be a time for people to discover the beauty of the graphic novel, and so here I’m recommending one of the finest.
Recognised on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels 1923-2010, this comic is not for the kids.
A gripping tale of anti-heroes set against the backdrop of the Cold War, it’s a masterpiece from start to finish. You will be converted.
Patrick Rothfuss - The Name of the Wind
Recommended to me by a trusted friend to fill the void that A Song of Ice and Fire had left behind, it delivered on all fronts.
A brilliant and imaginative contribution to fantasy, you will feel every step of main man Kvothe’s journey with him.
A sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, is also available.
Lindsey Davis - The Silver Pigs
Back in the late 80s, Lindsey Davis introduced the world to Ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco, and this was his and his partner Helena Justina’s first adventure together.
Crime meets history – ‘nuff said.
The Real Peaky Blinders – Carl Chinn
Want to learn the truth behind one of the greatest TV smashes of the century? Learn it from the man who probably knows it best.
A brilliant insight into important Midlands history, this book is the perfect way to learn something fresh and fascinating while you have the time.
It was very difficult for Sharon Walters to choose just five books.
With so many precious and treasured ones on her bookshelves it hurt to leave many out.
D H Lawrence - Sons and Lovers
I had a brilliant English teacher at school who opened me up to so many authors and poets.
What was a keen interest in literature became a passion as he shared his love working me through O-levels in language and literature (yes I am that old) and on to A-level.
Along the way he introduced me to D H Lawrence. Reading Sons and Lovers for the first time broke my heart and also set me free to live in another world and experience it through the pages.
After that I read every single piece of work he wrote and re-read them to this day.
Graham Greene - The Quiet American
Another introduction by my teacher. Brighton Rock was astonishing but The Quiet American took the scales away from my eyes over the Vietnam War.
The novel depicts the breakdown of French colonialism in Vietnam and early American involvement in the war.
It questions the foundations of growing American involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s and is unique in its exploration of the subject topic.
It also predicted the outcome of the War and subsequent American foreign policy since the 1950s.
Eamonn McCann - War and an Irish Town
This was a find I made all on my own after becoming disillusioned with all the rhetoric we were being fed about the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the early 70s.
McCann is is a Northern Irish politician, journalist and political activist from Derry.
His account of what it is like to grow up a Catholic in a Northern Irish ghetto became a classic account of the feelings generated by British rule.
He was at the center of events in Derry which first brought Northern Ireland to world attention.
He witnessed the gradual transformation of the civil rights movement from a mild campaign for “British Democracy” to an all-out military assault on the British state.
Not comfortable reading at times but an eye-opener.
Salman Rushdie - Midnight’s Children
Before all the controversy over The Satanic Verses Rushdie wrote two works and his second, Midnight’s Children, won the 1981 Booker Prize and, in 1993 and 2008, was awarded the Best of the Bookers as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40 years. Wow.
It follows the life of a child, born at the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, endowed with special powers and a connection to other children born at the dawn of a new age in the history of the Indian sub-continent and the birth of modern India.
I could hardly put this very substantial novel down and often fell asleep listening to the voices of all the children murmuring in its pages. A true enlightenment.
Brian Patten - Love Poems
I had to include some poetry.
This poet was brought to my notice by my son when he was just 10. He loved his works and I do as well.
He writes of many things including the death of his mother and memories of his childhood with her.
A truly remarkable collection of poems with deep insights into life and even in the darkest lines the reader is given courage and hope. Something we especially need today.
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