Lockdown joy number one for me has been all the stories about the wonders of people’s experiences in their local natural world: though why they didn’t get it before, I don’t know. But an equal joy has been the nearly as many stories about the wonders of people’s reading experiences: though why they didn’t get it before, I don’t know.
Well, I guess I do know, at least about the reading, because although I’m a lifelong voracious reader, the pandemic, the what-can-I-do-now-ness, and just that need to not eat or drink another unsuitable something, have forced me to experiment outside my usual reading comfort zones or information-seeking requirements.
There have been a few failures – or rather successes in that I now know I never need to read that author again – but many delights too, in both the fiction and non-fiction arenas. (Though my first tentative steps into auto-fiction via Karl Ove Knausgard’s A Death in the Family and Annie Ernaud’s Simple Passion are showing me that such a black-white distinction can in fact be rainbow coloured.)
But under the traditional fiction label, I’ve found a deep satisfaction through the Simon Serrailler crime novels of Susan Hill. Hill has been one of my favourite writers since I first discovered her via teaching I’m the King of the Castle, way back in the early 1980’s, but what I used to dismiss as who-done-its have never been a favourite of mine, so although I love Hill’s novellas, short stories, and of course the wonderful Woman in Black, I didn’t until last year try any of the ten Serrailler novels. Each one stands alone, but it’s been a wonderful experience to trace the development of that flawed main character, and of his wider family. The who-done-it aspect is always intriguing, and the descriptions of criminal procedures never boring, but they are secondary to the subtle underpinning psychological material: always an important part of Hill’s work.
Another minor happiness has been experimenting with reading short-form fiction – or flash fiction as it’s more frequently described. As someone with an English Literature degree, used to reading three-volume Victorian novels, or at least very familiar with the 300 page plus jobby, I have in the past been a little disparaging about the limited (I believed) possibilities of 300 words. But of course brevity brings its own delights… not least in our current bite/byte-size world. There are many online-only anthologies available, but a lovely little physical book, given to me by a friend, is Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories edited by Robert Shapard. It includes stories by none other than Grace Paley and Paul Theroux, along with many other writers (American, mostly) I’d not heard of. The same editor (plus others) also produced Flash Fiction International, which is truly is, and includes our very own Jim Crace and Somerset Maugham.
But for all my passion for fiction, I’m a info magpie too: I love to read beginner level books about any subject which happens to interest me for more than five minutes. Discoveries this last year have included – as well as Viruses and Pandemics from the wonderful A Very Short Introduction series (very helpful, especially as antidote to the waves of dis or mis information freely available on social media) – little tomes about crochet, edible plants, ageism, gemstones, racial and gender issues… oh, and looking for solid info about the climate crisis, the amazing The Story of More: how we got to climate change and where to go from here by Hope Jahren. Jahren is a research geochemist and geobiologist: a job title long enough and scientifically sounding enough to put me right off, but it was both easy to read and yet informative and thought-provoking.
And I love my thoughts provoked. They are liable to curl up with a piece of cake or a glass of wine and moulder lazily away if they’re not. That’s one reason I read.