These are not times to relish. The coronavirus continues to spread and fear is still mounting; life is put on pause as we find ourselves confined indoors. There are positives, however, to be taken from the panic. With all this free time, what better opportunity could there be to tackle that mounting pile of books by your bed? Whether you’re a committed bookworm or a literary neophyte, regular reading is supposed to boost brainpower, not to mention improving mental health. Below are some reading recommendations from The Student to get you through the next couple of weeks. There are classics, page-turners and veritable door-stoppers, all of which can bring joy and escapism in this difficult situation.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848
Few novels written in English capture the scope and insight of the works of European masters like Tolstoy and Hugo. None do so with the levity and playfulness of Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s satirical masterpiece. Set primarily during the Regency era, the novel provides both a panoramic view of nineteenth-century England, and one of the most memorable protagonists in all literature, in the form of Becky Sharp. Becky is clever, resourceful and wholly amoral, using the men around her to ascend from humble beginnings to a position amongst the aristocracy. Vanity Fair is a thoroughly realistic portrayal of a society preoccupied with artifice, whilst Thackeray’s occasional narratorial interjections give the novel a deliciously metafictional feel.
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, 1924-8
The Good Soldier is Ford’s superior work of fiction, but, at almost 900 pages, Parade’s End will keep you occupied in the lonely weeks ahead. A tetralogy of books condensed within a single volume, it is thoughtful, beautifully written and never boring. Its point of view dances, drifts and dips into the minds of its various characters, exploring the First World War in a way which bypasses battles and focuses instead on the psychological impact of the conflict, in the trenches and at home. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath as Joyce, Woolf et al., through his use of non-linear storytelling and skilful fragmentation Ford deserves to be counted among the great modernist writers.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, 1955
With its sun-kissed Italian setting and thrilling plot, The Talented Mr Ripley is the perfect antidote to being cooped up in a cold Edinburgh flat. It follows the ostensibly charming but inwardly psychopathic Tom Ripley, who is sent from America to Europe to track down the louche Dickie Greenleaf by Dickie’s wealthy father. Highsmith is a master of the thriller genre, yet her novel exceeds these constrictive bounds, with layered characterisation to match the frenetic storyline. As Tom flees from the authorities, we find ourselves rooting for a schizophrenic murderer, such is the author’s talent for nuance and dark humour. You may end up finishing Ripley in one sitting, but rest assured: there are a further four Highsmith books featuring the eponymous antihero.
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, 1959
Strange times require strange books, and The Tin Drum, for better or worse, is batshit crazy. It is a delirious picaresque tale which begins in a mental asylum and then takes us back to Nazi-occupied Poland. Its hero is Oskar Matzerath, who decides to stop growing at the age of three, can shatter glass with his high-pitched voice, and marches around bashing the little tin drum of the title. Oskar saunters through the horrors of the Second World War, introducing the reader to his dysfunctional family and the muddled history of his country. As the other figures of the story die and disappear, Oskar remains detached from events, at once an innocent and a deviant, the most unreliable of narrators. Haunting, hilarious, taboo-breaking and surreal, The Tin Drum will dominate your thoughts long after you have finished reading it.
Blindness by Jose Saramago, 1995
A terrifying novel about a pandemic might be the last thing you want to read right now, but Blindness is a remarkable work of allegory and prescient social study by the late Nobel laureate. Saramago presents us with an unnamed city, populated by unnamed characters. A contagion breaks out which renders every civilian blind except one. The government responds with clumsy force, and the people resort to panic and violent crime. With paragraphs that go on for pages and a near-total absence of punctuation, this apocalyptic parable is not a straightforward read, but these stylistic choices give Blindness a breathless quality which perfectly mimics the desperation contained within its story.
Image: Zsalto via Bē