Lockdown literature – why a good book is the greatest form of escapism

This is what I’ve been searching for. A book I didn’t want to put down and so, ended up finishing within 72 hours. A book that felt so relatable that for a brief moment, I forgot how challenging (read: shitshow) this year has been. A book I stayed up until midnight reading in bed until my partner turned to me, bleary-eyed, and said, ‘are you ready for bed yet?’ I had to fight the urge to inform him that we were in fact already in bed and what he’d meant to say was, ‘are you ready to sleep?’ A book that felt warm and comforting. 

I’ve found it a bit of a struggle to get through books this year (very unlike me – I usually finish a book within a fortnight). And yet, since March I’ve only managed to read less than a handful of novels. All of which were somewhat disappointing and anti-climactic. So much so that I had to force myself to read them to the end (I hate leaving books unfinished, even if they’re not particularly enjoyable). It may be the general lethargy, apathy and anxiety I’ve felt this year (hasn’t 2020 been fun?) that caused my sudden lacklustre love for literature, but I am now realising that it may also simply be that I wasn’t reading the right books. 

The last time I felt so ‘seen’ was whilst reading Queenie, and before that, In at the Deep End, both of which are excellent. The Flat Share, Queenie and In at the Deep End have a common thread – life and relationships in London. And though I love stories about other cultures (I read Homegoing last year and it quickly made its way to my favourites list), or those set in fantastical or even dystopian societies (Ubik is another recommendation if you’re a fellow sci-fi enthusiast), it’s these books about being a young woman in London in which I feel most at home, quite literally. It’s also these books in which the characters feel most recognisable – they could easily be my friends, colleagues and former romantic partners. I felt a similar pang of familiarity whilst reading Happiness, set in and around my old neighbourhood of Elephant & Castle, or even in The Bricks that Built the Houses, set in Deptford. And it was this familiarity that enabled a closer connection to the story. 

Ironically, not even the book which included a spattering of Arabic words throughout (a joyous experience I had not previously encountered other than in the book I’m currently writing) caused such captivation. Fleishman is in Trouble came close with its humorous depictions of dating app experiences, another ordeal I’m sorry to say I know all too well. But ultimately the story, and its characters, all felt rather dejected (not exactly great reading for this particular moment in time). That’s not to say I only enjoy ‘happy’ books. Quite the contrary, with The Kite Runner, Norwegian Wood, The Book Thief and A Little Life being among the most compelling stories I have ever read. Though I acknowledge this wasn’t always the case and there was a time at which I actively avoided heartbreaking tales, often citing that the world was sad enough, and for me, fiction acted as a form of escapism. I quickly realised however that it was the books that evoked the strongest emotions that stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. 

While you could argue that such escapism may be found through other activities, be it watching films or TV, or even scrolling through social media – none have left me feeling quite as satiated as reading a good book. Perhaps because none have felt as authentic an experience. Films and TV series’ transport me to entirely different worlds. Social media acts as a filter for curated experiences of existence. But books provide a tangible adventure in which you feel part of the story. Particularly these books. 
Glad to have found my way back to one of my favourite pastimes – buried between the pages of brilliant writing, I now understand why these recent books struck such a powerful chord. They allowed me to revisit, and in some ways relive, a former life. The Flat Share reminded me of an existence pre-Covid, pre-lockdown and pre-2020… an existence filled with good memories and bad, but mostly importantly different memories. An existence that many of us may be yearning for. I know I certainly am.

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