Seeking to bend the coronavirus curve, governors and mayors have told millions of Americans to stay home. If you’re pondering what to read, it’s easy to find lists featuring books about disease outbreaks, solitude and living a simpler life. But it’s much harder to find a book that combines these themes.
As the author of three books about essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, I highly recommend “Walden,” Thoreau’s 1854 account of his time living “alone” in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. I qualify “alone” because Thoreau had more company at Walden than in town, and hoed a bean field daily as social theater in full view of passersby on the road.
Published in over 1,000 editions and translated into scores of languages, “Walden” is the scriptural fountainhead of the modern environmental movement, a philosophical treatise on self-reliance and a salient volume of the American literary canon. In his introduction to the Princeton edition, John Updike claims that Thoreau’s masterpiece “contributed most to America’s present sense of itself” during the cultural renaissance of the mid-19th century, yet “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Another reason to read or reread “Walden” during trying times is that it gushes with sorely needed optimism and is laced with wit. And Thoreau befriends you by writing in the first person.
Reality lies within us
As governments mandate social distancing to protect public health, many readers may be coming to grips with solitude. Thoreau devotes a chapter to it, extolling the virtue of getting to know yourself really well.
“Why should I feel lonely?” he asks, “is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Elsewhere he clarifies the difference between what we need and what we think we need, writing, “My greatest skill has been to want but little.”
“Walden” doesn’t have to be read straight through like a novel. For readers who have previously given up on it, I suggest rebooting in the middle with “The Ponds,” which opens thus: “Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell…” Thoreau then retreats away from the mindless distractions of community life toward an immersion into Nature, with water at its spiritual center.
Next, flip back to the earlier chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Here Thoreau invites readers on a downward journey, from the fleeting shallows of their social lives to the solid depths of their individual lives:
“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…”
Our brains build that reality – yours, mine, everyone’s – by integrating external sensory signals with internal memories. Thoreau’s point – which is supported by 21st-century cognitive and neuroscience research – is that the real you precedes the social you. Your world is built from the inside of your skull outward, not vice versa.
The elusive simple life
Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond is often mistaken for a hermit’s flight deep into the woods. Actually, Thoreau put some distance between himself and his home and village so that he could understand himself and society better. When not in town, he swapped human companionship for the “beneficent society” of Nature for long enough to make “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant.”
Today mandatory social distancing is wrecking the global economy, based on traditional metrics like gross domestic product and stock prices. Viewed through “Walden,” this wreckage may look like a long-overdue correction for an unsustainable system.
Thoreau feared that the economy he saw was headed in the wrong direction. His opening chapter, “Economy,” is an extended rant against what he viewed as a capitalistic, urbanizing, consumption-driven, fashion-conscious 19th-century New England.
Of his neighbors, Thoreau wrote, “By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book” – meaning the Christian Bible – “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
In contrast, his recipe for a good economy is one of “Walden”‘s most famous quotes: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
That was easier said than done, even for Thoreau. When he conceived “Walden,” he was an unemployed, landless idealist. By the time it was published, he lived in a big house that was heated with Appalachian coal, earning income by manufacturing pulverized graphite and surveying for land developers.
Since then, the world’s population has more than quintupled and developed nations have built a global economy approaching US$100 trillion per year. Human impacts on the planet have become so powerful that scientists have coined the term Anthropocene to describe our current epoch.
Finding perspective in solitude
Some Americans have tried at least halfheartedly to follow “Walden”’s idealistic advice by living deliberately, being more self-reliant and shrinking their planetary footprints. Personally, although I’ve downsized my house, walk to work, fly only for funerals and cook virtually every meal from scratch, in my heart I know I’ve also contributed to the world’s swelling population, burn fracked natural gas and am hopelessly embedded in a consumer economy.
Nevertheless, after several weeks of social distancing, I’m rediscovering the value of two of Thoreau’s key points: Solitude is helping me recalibrate what matters most, and the current economic slowdown offers short-term gains and a long-term message for the planet.
These benefits don’t compensate for the incalculable personal losses and grief that COVID-19 is inflicting worldwide. But they are consolation prizes until things stabilize in the new normal. On my daily solitary walk in the woods, I am mindful of Thoreau’s words: “Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”
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Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.
The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.
These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.
Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.
This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.
As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.
Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.
The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.
There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.
The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.
Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”
Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe
The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.
Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.
These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.
Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett
Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.
Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.
Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.
Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.
This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.
Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn
Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.
This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.
This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.
But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill
Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.
It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.
See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.
Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.
The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.
A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.
It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.
But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.
Building a fan base
Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.
Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.
During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.
Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.
Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.
In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”
When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.
By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”
As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
Making enemies at home
Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.
As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.
Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.
The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.
Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.)
That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.
How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”
Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.
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Stories can be mirrors that help young people express feelings about a given situation. They give children a vocabulary for what is happening. But, because of how fiction works in the brain, stories can also be windows. When we read fiction, we inhabit other bodies and feel the concerns of other people. This helps young people to develop empathy – but has another profound effect. Reading stories makes us feel experienced and increases resilience.
I’ve chosen some wonderful books that all function both as mirrors and windows for children as the world faces the effects of Coronavirus. They are beautifully written and/or illustrated and should fire young imaginations, while comforting the whole family.
The Red Tree
This is a beautiful picture book – sparse of text – with lush landscapes in Sean Tan’s magical style. The reader loses themselves in pages that are achingly evocative of yearning, loss and wonder in a kind of heady cocktail of intense emotion, boredom and stoicism.
Dark leaves fall in our character’s bedroom, but by the end, they have coalesced into a beautiful red tree.
There is space here for even a very young reader to express what they think is happening page by page. The art could stimulate imitation. I can also imagine making a little red tree trunk and branches and adding a leaf to it, day by day.
There is very little reading to be done, so a slightly older child could also “read” it to a younger one.
The Mousehole Cat
Antonia Barber sets her classic story on the Cornish coast. The narrative is about a cat who saves the day when her community is threatened. It is wordier than many picture books, but narrated by the cat in clear, beautifully written prose – it’s a pleasure to read aloud.
Nicola Bayley’s illustrations are engaging and immersive – who wouldn’t like to go to the seaside right now? – and the characters easily inspire affection.
Touching on concepts of scarcity and sacrifice, this is a very empowering story for a young listener or reader. The smallest character in the story is the hero who saves everyone – by singing. It would be easy to live in this story for a while, going fishing from the laundry basket, practising storm singing, repeating some of the turns of phrase.
The illustrations are inspiring for young artists and could also be the basis of remembering visits to the seaside, pretend beach picnics or natural history lessons.
Comet in Moominland
A trip to Tove Jansson’s Moominland always makes everything better. Here, the family flee from an approaching comet, meeting many favourite characters on the way.
The much-beloved Moomins are eccentric hippo-like people, very accommodating of difference and otherness. That said, many of the characters have their little ways, and being accommodating isn’t always comfortable. The realism of the relationships gives even the silliest of Jansson’s stories the texture of real life.
Quirky line drawings are immensely endearing and the story, while exciting with elements of real fear, never feels as if it will end badly. The language is fun, with word play and characters’ attitudes and, again, the child is the hero. It’s not hard to draw a Moomin, and there are endless opportunities for drama. Year twos or threes can probably read it to themselves, with someone on hand for the tricky bits, but it’s fun enough to engage older children, and silly enough for littlies.
The Wee Free Men
Tiffany Aching comes from chalkland, where nobody has it easy, and everyone works hard. When a rift opens on her doorstep and her despised little brother is taken, she discovers she’s not ordinary, after all. Armed with a cast-iron frying pan, she takes on the full force of Fairyland.
This is a riotous out-loud read from the late Terry Pratchett, featuring a tribe of “pictsies” who speak in a Scottish accent that sounds a lot like the stand-up comic Billy Connolly. Tiffany’s gran has recently passed away – and the danger feels quite real – but we know that Tiff will get us through. She certainly does, battling forces of depression and self-doubt to do so – another young leader in a time of community danger. Even hardened teenagers might smile at the best bits and tweens will devour it whole. Children as young as six or seven can follow along.
The narrative is a role-play bonanza and there are opportunities to investigate British folklore, identities in the United Kingdom and gender roles. Illustrations in the text might inspire art and mapping the settings would be an interesting exercise. Further adventures of some of the characters could be written, and geography lessons about chalk grassland would be easy to work in.
The Book Thief
For resilient older children and teens, Markus Zusac’s story is set in a time of many lives lost – Germany during the second world war – and narrated by Death. It is gorgeously written (an international bestseller, adapted for film) and, while the subject matter is difficult, the narrative pulses with life and hope.
For a young person engaged with current events, questioning authority and impatient of parental efforts to shield them from the grimmer elements of our current reality, this book could be a lifeline.
Liesel Meminger is illiterate when the story begins, but takes a book that has been dropped at her brother’s graveside. As she begins to read and to leave childhood behind, she steals many more books. Love, death and the importance of even futile actions inform the story of Liesel’s coming of age and provide ways of thinking about what it means to be human.
This could be read together silently, perhaps taking chapters in turn, rationed out as a treat for discussion or not. It’s a natural accompaniment to history lessons, geography, or some online German instruction and watching the film could lead to a discussion of adaptation. But perhaps you could just leave a copy of it out for anyone who needs it to find and make their own.
Many of these titles are available electronically, but local bookshops are delivering and posting orders. After all, there’s nothing more comforting than snuggling behind the protective embrace of an open book.
Romance fiction has two defining features.
First, it centres on a love story. Secondly, it always ends well.
Our protagonists end up together (if not forever, then at least for the foreseeable future) and this makes the world around them a little bit better, too.
In times of uncertainty, upheaval and chaos, readers often turn to romance fiction: during the second world war, Mills & Boon was able to maintain its paper ration by arguing its books were good for the morale of working women.
The books the company was producing in this period were not about the war. Most never even mentioned it. Instead, they provided an escape for readers to a world where they could be assured everything was going to turn out all right: love would conquer all, villains would be defeated, and lovers would always find their way back to each other.
Today, romance publishing is a billion-dollar industry, with thousands of novels published each year. It covers a wide range of subgenres: from historical to contemporary, paranormal to sci-fi, from novels where the only physical interaction between the protagonists is a kiss, to erotic romance where sex is fundamental to the story.
Rule 34 of the internet states if you can think of something, then there’s porn of it. The same, I would argue, is true for romance fiction.
But where to begin? As both a scholar of romance fiction and an avid reader of it, I’ve put together this list of five great reads for people who might want to start exploring the genre.
If you like Jane Austen, try…
The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
The Austen Playbook is the fourth book in Parker’s London Celebrities series (all only loosely connected, so you can jump in anywhere).
Heroine Freddy is an actress from an esteemed West End family, trying to balance her desire to perform in musicals and crowd-pleasers over her family pushing her towards serious drama. Hero Griff is a theatre critic and his family estate is playing host to a wacky live-action Jane Austen murder mystery, in which Freddy is playing Lydia.
Parker is a gifted author, and this book is a light, bright and sparkling delight.
If you like (or hate!) dating apps, try…
The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai
Many people now find partners on dating apps, but these apps are often not exactly friendly for women.
Rai addresses that to great effect in The Right Swipe, where heroine Rhiannon is the designer of a dating app designed specifically for women.
She meets hero Samson the first time as a result of swiping right, and then the second time, months later, when he’s teamed up with one of her primary business rivals…
If you’re fascinated by psychology, try …
The Love Experiment by Ainslie Paton
Paton is one of Australia’s smartest and most underrated romance authors. The Love Experiment draws on the 36 questions developed by psychologist Arthur Aron to explore whether intimacy could be generated or intensified between two people if they exchanged increasingly personal information.
The 36 questions were popularised in Mandy Len Catron’s 2015 New York Times essay To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This. Here, journalist protagonists Derelie and Jackson undertake the experiment in Paton’s book, only to find love is more complex than 36 questions.
If you think we need to save the oceans, try…
Project Saving Noah by Six de los Reyes
This book emerges from RomanceClass, a fascinating community of English-language romance writers and readers based in the Philippines. One of their distinctive features is their collaboration with local actors in Manila to perform excerpts from the books (including Project Saving Noah) at their regular gatherings. I was privileged enough to attend one of these last year.
Protagonists Noah and Lise are graduate students in oceanography competing for one spot on a research project, while simultaneously being forced to work together. Their romance is conflicted and compelling, but what stands out about this book is the vividness with which their environment – natural and academic – is constructed.
If you like your protagonists to have some maturity, try…
Mrs Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
If Milan’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was at the centre of the recent scandal engulfing the Romance Writers of America, which penetrated through romance’s usual cultural invisibility.
When she’s not standing up against systemic racism, Milan writes excellent, mostly historical, romance. Mrs Martin is a delightful historical romp, as our two heroines Bertrice (aged 73) and Violetta (aged 69) team up against Violetta’s terrible nephew, and fall in love and eat cheese on toast together.
The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.
These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.
One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.
Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:
Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered
in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded
quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.
About 270 years after the Iliad, or thereabouts, plague is the centrepiece of two great classical Athenian works – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.
Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.
Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.
A health crisis
The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).
Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.
Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.
He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.
The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.
Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.
Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.
The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.
Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.
As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.
The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.
The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.
Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.
A modern lens
Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.
Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.
Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.
The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.
From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.
Literature has a vital role to play in framing our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth turning to some of these texts to better understand our reactions and how we might mitigate racism, xenophobia and ableism (discrimination against anyone with disabilities) in the narratives that surround the spread of this coronavirus.
Ranging from the classics to contemporary novels, this reading list of pandemic literature offers something in the way of an uncertain comfort, and a guide for what happens next.
Homer’s Iliad, as the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard has reminded us, opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis. US academic Daniel R Blickman has argued that the drama of Agamemnon and Achilles’ quarrel “should not blind us to the role of the plague in setting the tone for what follows, nor, more importantly, in providing an ethical pattern which lies near the heart of the story”. In other words, The Iliad presents a narrative framing device of disaster that results from ill-judged behaviour on the part of all of the characters involved.
COVID-19 is certain to shake up economic systems and entrenched institutional processes, as we’re seeing with the shift towards remote learning in universities around the world, to give just one example. These texts give us an opportunity to think through how similar crises have been managed previously, as well as ideas about how we might structure our societies more equitably in their aftermath.
The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, set during the Black Death, reveals the vital role of storytelling in a time of disaster. Ten people self-isolate in a villa outside Florence for two weeks during the Black Death. In the course of their isolation, the characters take turns to tell stories of morality, love, sexual politics, trade and power.
In this collection of novellas, storytelling functions as a method of discussing social structures and interaction during the earliest days of the Renaissance. The stories offer the listeners (and Boccaccio’s readers) ways through which to restructure their “normal” everyday lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.
Authority’s failure to respond
The normality of everyday life is also the focus of Mary Shelley’s apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826). Set in a futuristic Britain between the years 2070 and 2100, the novel – which was made into a movie in 2008 – details the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the “last man” following a devastating global plague.
Shelley’s novel dwells on the value of friendship, and concludes with Verney accompanied on his wanderings by a sheep dog (a reminder that pets may be a source of comfort and stability in times of crisis). The novel is particularly scathing on the topic of institutional responses to the plague. It satirises revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups, before these also succumb.
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) also depicts the failures of authority figures to adequately and humanely respond to such a disaster. The Red Death causes fatal bleeding from the pores. In response, Prince Prospero gathers a thousand courtiers into a secluded but luxurious abbey, welds the gates closed and hosts a masked ball:
The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.
Poe details the sumptuous festivities, concluding with the incorporeal arrival of the Red Death as a human-like guest at the ball. The plague personified takes the prince’s life and then those of his courtiers:
And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.
Modern and contemporary literature
In the 20th century, Albert Camus’ The Plague (1942) and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) brought readers’ attentions to the social implications of plague-like pandemics – particularly isolation and failures of the state to either contain the disease or moderate the ensuing panic. The self-isolation in Camus’ novel creates an anxious awareness of the value of human contact and relationships in the citizens of the plague-stricken Algerian city of Oran:
This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong.
In King’s The Stand, a bioengineered superflu named “Project Blue” leaks out of an American military base. Pandemonium ensues. King recently stated on Twitter that COVID-19 is certainly not as serious as his fictional pandemic, urging the public to take reasonable precautions.
Similarly, in his 2016 novel Fever, South African author Deon Meyer details the apocalyptic fallout of a weaponised, bioengineered virus that results in enclaves of survivors besieging one another for resources.
In Severance (2018), Ling Ma provides a contemporary take on the zombie novel as the fictional “Shen Fever” renders people repetitive automatons until their deaths. In a thinly veiled metaphor for the capitalist cog-in-the-machine, the protagonist Candace drifts daily in to her place of work in a future New York that is slowly falling apart. She eventually joins a survival group, assimilating culturally and morally to their violent attitudes towards the zombies, “embodying the atomisation of late-capitalist humans in a society stripped to its bones”, as reviewer Jiayang Fang suggests.
For some the end has already come
Consider also that “indigenous futurisms” – a term coined by First Nations cultural and race studies theorist Grace L Dillon to refer to speculative fictions by indigenous peoples and writers of colour such as NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius, and Carmen Maria Machado’s short story Inventory – have long since treated colonialism and the diseases spread by the colonisers as the source of what is currently experienced as an ongoing apocalypse. For many people in formerly colonised places, the apocalypse has already come – pandemics (both literal and metaphorical) have already obliterated their populations.
The catharsis that some of the above-mentioned texts may offer is troubled by the realities of pandemic and apocalypse conditions depicted in much fiction by indigenous peoples. If we used our own likely forthcoming periods of self-isolation to theorise alternative social structures, to tell one another stories about how we live, what stories might we tell?
Thomas Cromwell has had a remarkable and lasting impact on English history. The role that Henry VIII’s chief minister played in the country’s break with Rome and Catholicism and the focusing of power in the hands of the king’s government continues to have repercussions today as modern states debate their place in the world.
The question of Cromwell’s influence on the king and his role as backroom mastermind continues to fascinate modern audiences, holding up a mirror to more recent discussions over the role in today’s political sphere of special advisers such as Dominic Cummings or Alastair Campbell and their influence on modern-day leaders.
Cromwell’s life was lived largely in the shadows, so what can we make of his character and what is the truth of his existence? Historical evidence is limited and we catch only glimpses of Cromwell’s inner life in his own letters and the words that others said and wrote about him.
The basic skeleton of the historical record gives us a remarkable life, and yet it is a life that has – until relatively recently – been little discussed beyond the historical arena. Historians never anticipated that they would be able to capture a richer sense of Cromwell as a human being, so the publication of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall in 2009 came as something of a shock to the world of Tudor history.
To suddenly encounter a fully realised individual, reliving the experiences of his childhood and violent father and grieving the shocking and sudden loss of his wife and daughters, formed a remarkable intervention in our understanding of a man who was described by Geoffrey Elton, the historian who admired him most, as being “unbiographical”.
The subsequent publication by Bring up the Bodies, which won Mantel a second Booker prize, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2018 biography completed Cromwell’s rehabilitation as someone we can make sense of when placed within his time and the events in which he took such a central role. But it has taken until now – more than seven years after volume two – for Mantel to tell the final phase of the story that she has transformed.
Mantel has firmly stated that it was not her aim to write a history. Yet her Cromwell is so real, so compellingly lifelike, that it has become very difficult to think about him without her interpretation coming into mind. For historians it is an important reminder that the figures we study were real people who lived and died – often in painful, even horrific, circumstances.
Mantel’s small world
It is easy, of course, for historians to find problems with Mantel’s account. Mantel telescopes some events and adds to others for dramatic effect, providing Cromwell with motivations and a rich emotional inner life, all of which remains within the fictional realm.
What she really gives us is a version of what may have been possible. Just as historians disagree over the reading of a particular letter or incident, so we are free to engage with Mantel’s version of Cromwell. Her books are – and will continue to be – vital to the teaching of the subject and to the development of our understanding of Cromwell and his world.
Historians have been increasingly drawn to thinking of the past not only in terms of the textual, material and visual records that survive, but also in terms of the architectural and geographical worlds in which people operated. The Tudor court was a small world of confined spaces and intimate relationships – an intense environment in which remarkable events took place. We can now add an imaginative reconstruction of that world, grounded in careful detail accrued from the years of research carried out by Mantel.
It is about as realistic a depiction as we could hope for and it provides a valuable frame for understanding how a whispered exchange might carry vital information or how Henry VIII’s sudden anger might terrify his subjects into compliance. While we can never be certain of the precise nature of Cromwell’s relationship with the king, we can now offer a range of possible interpretations, from shared memories of early military campaigns to a monarch requiring effective service of his subject, finding him wanting and therefore disposable.
Decline and fall
The question of Cromwell’s fall is one that has troubled historians. How did a man so immersed in the Tudor court, who had witnessed the destructions of Thomas Wolsey and of Anne Boleyn, miscalculate badly enough to end up on the scaffold?
Mantel offers us some possible routes into making sense of Cromwell’s miscalculation. The courtly world that Mantel depicts is acutely dangerous. From the start of The Mirror and the Light we see Cromwell surrounded by rumours of his fate in the aftermath of the fall of Boleyn – someone to whom he had been so close. Later on he squabbles with her uncle the Duke of Norfolk and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer – ignoring the latter’s warning not to get too deeply involved in the matter of the king’s marriage after the death of Jane Seymour.
Cromwell’s trust in Henry, and his belief that the king will stand by his assertions of loyalty and the signs of warmth that Henry gives, prove to be his downfall. In the face of the warnings from those around him, Cromwell follows his role to its natural end. Elevated to become Earl of Essex, Cromwell holds “the shining bowl of possibility … all is mended” – a final cruel miscalculation.
When it comes, Cromwell’s enemies physically closing in on him to strip him of rank and title, this provides a fundamental truth about power and about the reality of being a king’s councillor or special advisor: in the end, everyone falls.