The lockdown was pitched as a glorious time to read. On paper – bound to our homes, with essentials delivered to the door – perhaps it was. Publishers and digital platforms moved swiftly to offer daily literary temptations – entire catalogues of free e-books, deep discounts, chats with authors, and helpful listicles on all manner of reads to escape the exhaustion and grief of the health nightmare steadily creeping up on us.
But what did it mean for those of us who read books for a living? I had fully expected to use the extended lockdown – when very few new books and commissioned reviews were likely to come my way – to tackle the unfinished stack on my bedside table. That’s not what happened.
To read good and proper, I needed to disconnect from the terrible reality of the present – wishful thinking with the always-on-alert mode that the pandemic thrust upon us. A few pages in, my mind would wander, snapping out of the brief, quiet moment and I’d find myself reaching for my phone.
There were always new, urgent updates: messages about new Covid-19 positive cases in the neighbourhood, the latest articles shared by friends on terrifying new data on the Coronavirus, fresh instructions regarding my son’s virtual learning programme. There was constantly something to ponder or worry about. Through this chaos, I was naturally more drawn to pitching and writing stories directly related to the health crisis rather than thinking about and critiquing books.
Book reading, especially for a reviewer, requires one to be doubly alert to the text and context. The pauses between readings are equally crucial to how you respond to the book and what the author is trying to say. You enter its world and stay there, entangled in its strands, joining the dots, drawing patterns and giving it space in your head for days till you’re ready to put your thoughts on page (or have a deadline chasing you).
But as neuroscientists world over have told us, it’s been hard for most people to focus, with our brain in fight-or-flight mode to the threat of the virus. An activity like deep reading is especially difficult because it requires a high level of engagement and quiet. So it wasn’t just me.
I put the unfinished books away, tucked my Kindle back in the drawer, and submitted to the relatively easier charms of web shows. With the pressure off, I decided to step away from the books that were creating a buzz on social media and looked elsewhere. I found myself pulling out Sheila Dhar’s Raga’n Josh from the bookcase, a delightful collection of essays on a rich musical life that lightened my mood on weekends. I had read it before, but on second reading it opened up to me far more satisfyingly.
Ordinarily I’m not one for audio books, but I did the uncharacteristic thing and let Tom Hanks’ drawl fill my ears with a reading of Ann Patchett’s delicately engrossing The Dutch House on Scribd as I mopped my home. I tried a few breezy non-fiction titles. I stumbled upon a bunch of terrific books podcasts. My reading pace had drastically slowed down, but there were so many other ways to stay connected to books.
Two months in, it became easier to commit to fictional worlds. I managed to read and write about a couple of books in record time. It helped that one of those books – Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits – related in an eerie way to the present, affording the novel considerable relevance. Last week, deeply absorbed in Megha Majumdar’s striking debut A Burning, I felt comforted to have found my way back to the feverish grip of books.
As one learns to live with uncertainty of unprecedented proportions, how have other book reviewers and books editors fared during this time? I reached out to four of them to ask what the last few months changed for them in terms of engagement with books, how they responded to fewer book releases and whether the pandemic is creeping into their deep reading and critiquing.
Somak Ghoshal, Books editor, Mint Lounge
All my life I have drawn comfort and strength from books, especially when times have been rough. But the pandemic and lockdown felt so overwhelmingly unprecedented that for the first few days I felt I had lost all focus, before I managed to wrest my concentration back. When disease and death are wreaking havoc all around, books feel too distant from our immediate reality. In the course of the lockdown, though, I was able to feel more grounded and centred, thanks to the power of books.
Of the books I read for work, Sharmishtha Mohanty’s collection of poems, The Gods Came Afterwards, felt fortifying and grounding. These are short lyrics, inspired by the mystical philosophy of the Rig Veda, and executed with riddle-like fascination. I savoured the experience of revisiting them over and over again.
For leisure, I finally managed to read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which had been languishing on my bookshelves for five years. A memoir of losing a parent, a potted history of falconry, and a mediation on our relationship with nature, this book was cathartic for me to process the upheavals and grief all around.
At Lounge, we carry stories based on books all through the magazine, apart from the dedicated Books page. While the lockdown did put a stop to printing new books, many titles were released digitally. So, we could write about books uninterruptedly all through.
Satish Padmanabhan, executive editor and books editor, Outlook magazine
I thought I’d read lots of books and watch lots of films when the lockdown started. But I have not watched a single film, and finished half a book. First, there are logistical considerations – I used to get 15-20 books a week from publishers earlier, and during the lockdown I must have got about 15 books in three months, most of them in the form of PDFs. Second, the mind has been wandering while reading, because there is anxiety about the constant stream of news from relatives and friends affected by Covid-19.
Since I was not able to read much fiction, I thought non-fiction might be easier. So I started reading In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, and even though it’s a slim book and I have read it before, I haven’t been able to finish it. I think one needs to be in a normal situation to be able to read. What has come to my rescue is Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret detective series, crime fiction set in 1930s Paris that I picked up from the book fair earlier this year. It has become comfort food for me.
Since there weren’t any major book releases during the lockdown, for the Outlook books pages, I used some of the reviews that I had in the bank, and commissioned a few more – though not many reviewers want to read books on PDF. But work has been busier than usual, with author interviews, webinars and online engagement taking up a lot of time. I have started a new interview series called “The Outlier”, featuring TM Krishna and William Dalrymple in the first two episodes, talking about their books, among other things.
Nandini Nair, books and culture editor, Open magazine
During the first two months of lockdown, when the rules were the most strict, I was on my own. In splendid isolation, which soon enough turned into drudgery and toil! I had the time to read books, but not the will. Books require attention, and I felt too scattered. Netflix would have to do. But now when I’m with family and things feel less dire, my focus returns to the page.
At Open, I’ve been receiving more pitches than ever before. People are at home, people are reading, freelancers need gigs that pay. As the books and culture editor, the initial weeks of the lockdown felt like a blindfold game. No one knew what was happening, what would happen and for how long.
How do you fill the culture pages if there are no big events taking place, no films being released, no gatherings taking place? But I think it’s to the credit of creative writers that we did fill our pages with interesting and relevant articles, whether it was on the rise of fanfiction during the lockdown, or on artists who’ve tapped into solitude on their canvas, or on the historical use of perfumes during pandemics, or on the Bhojpuri songs of migrant workers.
I feel the lockdown freed many articles from the tyranny of the newspeg. And as a commissioning editor I really appreciated this – one could think beyond the box, at wider trends.
The number of our culture pages have been reduced, from about 15 a week to 10, and, given the financial constraints across media, we’ve also reduced the number of commissioned pieces. But I’d like to think that right now it is a quality game above quantity.
Harsimran Gill, freelance writer and editor
Like many readers, I’ve found it hard to stay focused on a book recently. While this was partly an outcome of anxiety and distractedness, an inability to tear myself away from the news, and endless doom scrolling on Twitter, the dissonance between what I would try to read and what the real world looked like played a huge part too. In moments like this, it helps sometimes to go in the complete opposite direction, as poet and essayist Urvashi Bahuguna recently wrote about very vividly.
So while I’m mostly reading literary fiction for work, in my spare time (which is pretty hard to come by), I have been rereading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which has the advantages of familiarity, wonder, and a healthy distance from reality.
There is a particular romanticisation of books and fetishisation of reading within literary ecosystems that I have always been wary of: the elevation of books as superior to other forms of art and storytelling, and within that, the ranking of certain types of writing as more important, more worthy. The pandemic has just heightened my discomfort.
I am, and will always remain a steadfast champion of books, but I have been thinking (and talking with readers and writers) a lot recently about how many of us seem to have forgotten that reading is an acutely personal experience, and any value or comfort to be derived from it varies drastically from one individual to the next. At a time when the enormity of unfairness that structures our world has become more starkly clear than ever before, I think it’s critical to ask who gets to escape within the pages of a book and who doesn’t.
The recent pause in the release of major titles has actually offered a chance to think about these questions, along with others about the publishing industry – what direction it will grow in, whom it will include in its new imagination, and whom it will keep out. Literary criticism is far from a lucrative way to earn a livelihood, so I have also continued with the other forms of writing and editing that I usually do. I’m grateful, however, for the ability to keep reviewing.
A book review is one of the most challenging and rewarding types of essays for a writer to tackle. A good review doesn’t only engage with the world and craft contained within an individual book, but with everything else that it is in conversation with. This includes the body of literature of which it is a part, of course, but also its resonance with the reality outside its pages.
In that sense, it’s almost impossible for our extremely unusual times to not seep into the act of critiquing and reviewing. I read and wrote about Shehan Karuntilaka’s Chats With the Dead as the world tried to renegotiate its relationship with mortality. I read and wrote about Megha Majumdar’s A Burning as the extent of inequality and injustice hard coded into our systems became impossible to ignore.
A lot of literary coverage recently has focused on trying to find answers, comfort, and parallels with books from the past or to find themes of isolation, illness, inequality in new titles. It’s a natural instinct (and the likeliest to be greenlit by commissioning editors) but the act of writing, like reading, is deeply personal and varied too. A review is above all, an exercise in fairness, which includes what gets reviewed.
And, pandemic or not, it is on us to ensure that good writing, especially from voices who have not always got the platform that they deserve, continues to be recognised regardless of its ability to explain the bizarre times we’re living through.
Neha Bhatt is a freelance journalist and book critic.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.