What can we read in this time of worry and fear? Do we want books that give us a better grip on reality or do we prefer escapism? Many readers will be using this time to turn to those classics they have never got round to reading. In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain and The Plague immediately come to mind. Less sensitive souls may find the science fiction or horror of Stephen King more to their taste.
For those who are seeing their list of ‘must reads’ shrink before their eyes or simply want to make a (re-)discovery, BOZAR LITERATURE has drawn up a list of books able to place these dark days in another light. Each one a work that is most definitely worth reading. Not only in the time of corona, but at any time. Although today they take on a different meaning.
Try to praise the mutilated world - Adam Zagajewski
Not a book, but a single poem by the great Polish poet who 10 years ago spent a memorable evening at BOZAR. The poem ‘Try to praise the mutilated world’ appeared in The New Yorker immediately after 9/11 and became the lyrical soundtrack that gave comfort to thousands after this other catastrophe from our recent past. The book in which it was published is now difficult to find but if you Google the title you will find the poem right away online at many poetry websites.
A Journey Around My Room - Xavier De Maistre
A literary gem from 1794 that reads as if it was written just last month. The main character is placed under house arrest for six weeks and makes a ‘journey around his room’. For each day there is a chapter linked to a theme. The reader is treated to fascinating anecdotes and reflections on solitude, freedom, memory, friendship, etc. The recently published work with the same title by the Dutch writer J.M.A. Biesheuvel adopts the same approach.
My year of rest and relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh
The young American writer Ottessa Moshfegh describes a misanthropic hypochondriac who decides to lock herself away in her room for a year with a stock of pills big enough to paralyze and/or cause hallucinations in a herd of elephants. This may all sound very depressing but it is at times hilarious, and a kind of modern-day version of the Russian classic Oblomov.
Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo - Philippe Lançon
In 2015 the French writer and journalist Philippe Lançon survived the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. In Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo he describes his time in hospital, his ‘mutilation’ and above all his recovery. It is not only a very gripping account but also shows us that there is always hope. At one point in the book Lançon very pertinently cites Blaise Pascal: 'All humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Also notable is how Lançon turns to the music of Bach and the works of Proust and Kafka to overcome his sorrows and his fears.
Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors - Susan Sontag
The essays of Susan Sontag are always interesting for their clarity and erudition. In these companion works, Sontag describes how every era experiences an illness that becomes a symbol of evil in the world. In her case it was cancer and Aids, but Sontag’s reflections remain extremely relevant in the light of what we are experiencing today.
White Noise - Don DeLillo
Anxiety, paranoia and fear are omnipresent in the work of the great America writer Don DeLillo. In White Noise everything and nothing happens, but there are some particularly memorable pages about a chemical disaster and a family fleeing a toxic cloud. The book appeared a year before the Chernobyl disaster but DeLillo is unmatched as he describes the fear and uncertainty that we are also experiencing today. Yet another demonstration of how fiction is often overtaken by reality.
The Lonely city Adventures in the Art of Being Alone - Olivia Laing
This British author lived for a time in New York and describes what it is like to be lonely. Does technology bring us closer together or does it make us prisoners behind our screens? With reference to the life and work of four artists, including Hopper and Warhol, she discovers how art can function as an antidote to loneliness. In the context of the coronavirus, Laing recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on 'the magic of loneliness' as well as a piece in The Guardian on how art can help us in times like these.
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World - Laura Spinney
Lovers of non-fiction will learn a lot from the British writer and science journalist Laura Spinney. In The Pale Rider she gives an account of the Spanish flu, one of the greatest disasters in the history of humanity that until recently was little more than a footnote to the First World War. But Spinney shows how this pandemic was at least as important as the two world wars in terms of the way it disrupted – and often changed permanently – world politics, race relations, family structures, medical science, religion and the arts.
A la ligne - Joseph Ponthus
If the coronavirus crisis exposes anything, it is the social and economic differences between those who are considered key workers, and those who are not. Much has already been written about the heroic work of our doctors and nurses. But little attention is being paid to the low-paid workers who guarantee our food supplies. Reading can also be an exercise in humility and empathy, and so it certainly cannot do any harm to read A la ligne, the debut novel from the French writer Joseph Ponthus in which a writer relates his experiences working in fish processing factories and abattoirs in Brittany.
Readers’ reactions and additional suggestions are welcome at email@example.com.
Also check with your local bookshop whether they take online orders. Due to the coronavirus crisis many bookshops have reorganised to try to compete with the major online retailers. We know that you can order books online through our bookshop partners Tropismes and Paard van Troje, for example.