SARAH BUITENDACH: When lockdown bites, we’re in need of comfort
Sarah Buitendach looks at how escapist reading and other pleasures can lighten the emotional load of Covid-19
Six days in, and your suits are collecting cobwebs, you’ve embraced walking around the garden 33 times a day to get your Discovery Vitality points and every now and again you catch yourself thinking: “Is this seriously happening?”
After all, it’s April the first today, so when is somebody just going to confess it’s all been one awful prank, and we can go back to living our lives like before?
Presumably, at this point, you’ve also read everything on the FM website, and have refreshed your news feed so many time for Corona updates that you’re one step away from obtaining a PhD in epidemiology.
For most people, such a constant cycle of facts, fear, panic and the creeping sense of being under siege from an unknown enemy is pretty bad for anxiety and concentration. Have you tried reading a book in the past week? My attention levels are shot, and my usually literature-guzzling friends say the same thing. We want to get through the precarious piles of books sitting next to our beds in case of a pandemic, and we all agree that now is definitely the time to read the full Hilary Mantel trilogy. But we just can’t relax and get to it. Perhaps I’m running with the wrong crowd.
A lot of book releases have been postponed to a time when this ordeal is all over. And yet the BBC reported last week that sales of fiction in the UK have risen by a third. That nation has since gone into isolation too, and book stores are shut, but bookseller Waterstones says its online sales grew 400% in one week. One of the aforementioned Mantel books — her newest release, The Mirror & the Light — tops the list. What I’d like to know is, now that they’ve bought these tomes and new titles, are the Brits actually reading them?
For more on this topic, see The Guardian’s piece on book sales surging. It reckons many are using the “time out” to take on those unreadable classics, panic buying Middlemarch, War and Peace and the likes. Even author Stephen King says he’s tackling James Joyce’s Ulysses. Good for you, Stephen.
Still, if you’ve got the stamina to launch into some good escapist fiction and non-fiction, the list that comes courtesy of The New York Times will get you through the lockdown. It has asked various members of its expansive team to suggest time-honoured books they find comforting. Their picks are personal and wide-ranging. I’ve put the Mitford books on my Goodreads list of what I plan to read.
Elsewhere in the universe, those in need of comfort are on Instagram. And we’re watching a lot of that platform’s IGTV video app: there’s gold in them thar clips. Take for example the cookery videos that two of our top chefs are recording in their own kitchens. David Higgs – owner and chef at Joburg’s beloved Marble and Saint restaurants – will teach you how to make the perfect omelet or custard, while his clothing gets more outlandish by the minute. Meanwhile, TV chef Siba Mtongana has the whole family running around the house, but will still instruct you on fixing dombolo (steamed bread), butternut soup and other comfort essentials.
For the rest of us, if you’ve got a patch of grass or a balcony, you should be making the most of it. We’re lucky to be able to escape into the autumn sun right now. I always find solace in gardens, but couldn’t possibly put my need for green as well as Olivia Laing does. The award-winning British author, who wrote Crudo, made me think that one day I am going to make a point of visiting as many of the world’s most magnificent gardens as I can.
Until then though, I’m in bed, in my PJs, on a lot of Zoom calls. Having read Vulture’s interview on Zoom etiquette with the great great granddaughter of America’s queen of etiquette, Emily Post, I may reconsider that. The bed bit — not the sleepwear. Give me a break!
- Buitendach is Life editor for the FM and editor of Wanted magazine
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