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Literature in Lockdown

Woman reading in the Lit & Phil

A few ideas to soothe the soul

Statistically we are all reading more right now *.  True, some of us have more time on our hands, and true, our recreational opportunities are considerably less than they were.  However, it appears to be more than that.  Literature offers a balm or elixir, food for the soul in hard times.  It is a way of escaping – temporarily but very deeply, from our troubles and anxieties.  It engages the brain, nourishes the soul, triggers our empathy and stirs the imagination in a way that nothing else can. 


With a good book we can truly transport ourselves to another time, another place and live another life. Or perhaps just have a really good giggle.

With a good book we are never alone, and the best stories of all stay with us a lifetime.  They may even shape who we are and what we will become.  

So we would like to suggest a selection of accessible works which we at the Lit & Phil believe will offer escapism in one form or another during this challenging time. We hope you are inspired to read one or two, and perhaps try something completely new.   This is merely a starting point – we’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions and suggestions, either comment below or email mabbott@litandphil.co.uk

Although the library is closed for the time being, there are a multitude of good and reasonably priced online booksellers and e-book retailers we would recommend including: worldofbooks.com and amazon.co.uk (don’t forget to use Amazon Smile to help support the Lit & Phil – thank you)

Local bookshops who are still supplying books include:  keelrowbooks.com and cogitobooks.com

FREE AUDIO BOOKS!
In light of Members being unable to use the library at the moment, we are also delighted to announce Members-only free use of the Naxos Spoken Word Library. This resource offers thousands of audio books, everything from classic and contemporary fiction to children's favourites, drama, poetry, philosophy, history and biography. (Please email library@litandphil.org.uk, stating your full name and Membership Number.)


The Lit & Phil Lockdown List...

Thurber Annual - James Thurber

A celebration of the work of James Grover Thurber, American cartoonist, humourist and celebrated wit (1894 – 1961).

No Bed for Bacon - Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon 
First published in 1941, this is a comic classic and delectable celebration of The Bard. ‘The Story of Shakespeare and Lady Viola in Love’ it bubbles with humour, wit and warmth. 

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary - David Sedaris 
A collection of keen-eyed animal-themed humorous short-stories full of heart and hilarity.

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson

A bracing Highland adventure set around real events in Scotland in the 18th century, with hidden political undertones.  A rich immersive classic which will transport you to another time and place.

Puckoon – Spike Milligan
A comic novel first published in 1963, Milligan tells the hilarious story of the fictional Irish village of ‘Puckoon’ – its questionable boundaries and even more questionable inhabitants.  Full of Milligan’s trademark wit and charm, this is a wonderful piece of writing that will have you keeled over with laughter.

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
A wonderfully amusing portrait of life in a fictional English country village in 1950s Britain, full of brilliantly sketched characters and acute social observation.  It is a novel which celebrates all the little things that make us ‘what we are’ – our hopes, dreams, idiosyncrasies and aspirations - and so most perfectly portrays the human condition.  As Alexander McCall Smith said, it is “One of the 20th century’s most endearing and amusing novels”.

The World of Jeeves – PG Wodehouse
A book needing little introduction – a omnibus of wonderful hilarious Jeeves and Wooster stories, specially selected and introduced by Wodehouse himself.  Escape with us to the 1920s and lose yourself in the company of everyone’s favourite English ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ and his bachelor employer as they have some jolly good capers and a rollicking good time!  

Jeeves: Pardon me for asking, sir, but are you proposing to appear in public in those garments?
Bertie Wooster: Well, certainly, Jeeves. What — a bit vivid, do you think?
Jeeves: Not necessarily, sir. I am told that Mr. Freddie "He's a Riot" Flowerdew often appears on the music-hall stage in comparable attire...

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
The original, best and most fulfilling ‘will they or won’t they?’ tale ever told, and a lesson in the risks of quick-judgement and hastiness. We join our protagonist Elizabeth Bennett as she travels the rocky road of love and learns ultimately the triumph of goodness, honesty and integrity over self-indulgence and superficiality.  In all matters of the heart and an exquisite portrayal of English manners, look no further than Austen.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a thoroughly charming novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. A master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, Towles here immerses us in the elegantly drawn 1920s and the life and story of the lovable Count Alexander Rostov.  A story for our times, Rostov finds ingenious ways of biding his time and being a ‘man of purpose’ from his attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Possibly the most loved and revered of all Dickens’ works – this is a tale of change, growth and maturity which simply cannot fail to absorb and enchant.  More than an autobiography due to the richness of the themes and complexity of the writing, and in the words of the author ‘a very complicated weaving of truth and invention’, this is a book to relinquish your entire self to and one you will never forget.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett
Set in 1960s Mississippi, this is a beautifully penned tale of three African American women working in white households, their struggles, triumphs and the unexpected friendships that blossom.  A rich work full of stories and anecdotes at times beautiful and generous, at times cruel, startling and brutal but always holding up a mirror to a deeply flawed society and a shockingly recent past.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.”  It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. He becomes beguiled by the local doctor’s daughter, so begins a passionate love affair set amid the tumult and savagery of the ever encroaching lines of WWII.  The extraordinary times and spectacular setting for this tale heighten in no small degree a love story at once epic, tragic and all-consuming.

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
Set in England’s ‘Plague Year’ of 1666 this is a story maybe a little close to the bone right now but nevertheless utterly compelling and a startlingly powerful read.  A young mother faces catastrophe when a bolt of infected cloth brings the deadly plague to the small rural village where she lives.  As the life she knows begins to collapse around her and the community crumbles she must look to the healers, spiritualists and hidden natural wonders around her in order to survive.

The Librarian – Salley Vickers
Another charming novel set in 1950s England but this time concerning the ramifications when a passionate young librarian with a deep admiration for children’s literature arrives in a quaint market town.  To win over her backward new community Sylvia Blackwell must strive against a steady flow of opposition, and put her heart and dreams on the line in the process. 

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is a superbly written intimate tale of three generations beginning in the Civil War era.  It is told through a letter by terminally ill Congregationalist minister John Ames to his son, and is full of spirituality and the breathtaking beauty of ordinary life in their little Prairie town.  “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”  This is a novel crafted with a beautiful economy of language that celebrates the greatness in simplicity, quietness and the ‘small things’, teaches us to appreciate what is around us and ultimately gives hope.

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe
It is 1982 and young and inexperienced 20 year old Nina Stibbe from Leicester has moved to London to work as a nanny. Love, Nina is the laugh-out-loud collection of letters she wrote home gloriously describing her 'domestic' life and all its trials and triumphs.  A jolly read to enjoy over a cup of tea!

Calypso – David Sedaris
'Unquestionably the king of comic writing . . . Calypso is both funnier and more heartbreaking than pretty much anything out there' Hadley Freeman, Guardian
When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it's impossible to take a vacation from yourself. With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality.

The Mitford Murders – Jessica Fellowes
'True and glorious indulgence. A dazzling example of a Golden Age mystery' Daisy Goodwin
Written by the author of official companion books to the Downton Abbey tv series, this is the first novel in a series concerning the glamorous and sumptuous lives of the Mitford sisters in the 1920s, and is based on a real crime.

Fortune’s Rocks – Anita Shreve
Few can capture the emotional rollercoaster of love as vividly and poignantly as Shreve.  This wonderfully crafted tale concerns a forbidden love affair in a Boston seaside resort in the 1920s and one girl’s tumultuous journey into adulthood.

No Name – Wilkie Collins
Orphans Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah are outcast from Victorian English society after discovering their parents were not married at the time of their birth. Disinherited by law and brutally ousted from their childhood home, the two young women must fend for themselves and carve their own path. While Norah follows convention and becomes a governess, Magdalen uses her vivacious talents and spirited nature to gain success and seek revenge. Written in the early 1860s, between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, No Name was rejected as immoral in its day but is now regarded as Collins at the height of his powers.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
A hugely underrated adventure novel which will lure readers in with its wonderfully intricate plot full of masterfully drawn characters.  Set across the islands of the Mediterranean in the 19th century it transports us to a swashbuckling world of seafarers, pirates, rogues, beauties and treasure.  Dripping with romance and heroism, it is also a deeply moving tale of hope, justice, and the old adage ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’.  The count must surely be one of literature’s most beguiling and enchanting heroes.

Love in the time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This is another hugely evocative work from one of the main pioneers of magic realism, and probably greatest novelists of all time. Florentino Ariza is hopelessly in love with Fermina Daza but she has married another man.  Half a century later Ariza has enjoyed much romantic success and a glittering career but his original love holds true. When Daza’s husband dies, Ariza and she must discover if there is still a role for young love in the twilight of their lives.

No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Precious Ramotswe of Botswana sets up her own detective agency in the country’s capital city at the tender age of 34.  Her methods may not be conventional but she has a talent for intuition and an uncanny understanding of human nature which puts her in prime position as Botswana’s only – and finest female detective.  Such was the adoration for McCall Smith’s leading lady – warm, witty and larger than life, that this first novel became a global bestseller and seeded another 19 in the series. An utterly charming read.

Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona - Tim Parks
A strongly evocative book. Much more than a travel book it’s a very well observed tale of Italian life.

The Hearing Trumpet - Dora Carrington
Often compared to Alice in Wonderland, written by a surrealist painter, 92 year old Marian Leatherby is given a hearing trumpet-  and then the story unfolds with elements of Angela Carter, Spike Milligan, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl all rolled together.

The Hunting of the Snark - Lewis Carroll
As well as his well known Alice books, Carroll also wrote a lot of nonsense poetry and this bizarre tale of "an island frequented by the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch—no doubt the very island where the Jabberwock was slain." is both entertaining and sinister.

The Mapp and Lucia stories - E.F.Benson
Six full length novels which very entertaingly outline the everyday lives and bitchiness, almost constant social climbing and artistic pretensions of a group of residents in a small south coast town. Total escapism!

The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder - Patricia Highsmith

Thirteen murder stories, but this time the animals turn the tables on humans with a collection of short stories written in Highsmith’s compulsively readable style. Not to be recommended for the weak-minded and impressionable.


* The Reading Agency surveyed more than 2,000 people in the UK and found that 31% have been reading more since lockdown began, with the charity citing a “particular spike”, of 45%, among young people aged between 18 and 24.

About the author

Marianne Abbott

Marianne is Marketing Officer at the Lit & Phil.

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