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David Bouchier: The Literary Hermit

Rabhi Sharma

Every year right after Memorial Day we are bombarded with lists of recommended summer vacation reading, some of which are so daunting that nervous people may choose not to go on vacation at all. But Memorial Day is seven weeks away, and we need something good to read right now, in this strange enforced vacation period.

It seems to me that the best strategy is to blend the themes of our quarantine reading into the themes of our peculiar situation in a positive way. Medical books must be avoided at all costs of course, along with the classic plague stories of Albert Camus and Daniel Defoe – not the right thing at all.

Reading choices are personal, so I won’t even pretend to suggest what you should read during your virus vacation. But I can tell you what I’ve been reading so far.

My luckiest choice was a long novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by an author who should be better known, Amor Towles. It is the deceptively simple story of an aristocratic Russian, Count Rostov, who in 1922, after the Communist revolution, was arrested by the Bolsheviks and put into house arrest in a small room in a Moscow hotel. He is never allowed to leave the hotel and lives there for over thirty years, never lonely, never depressed or self-pitying about his imprisonment, always making the most of his small world and the people in it, and always well-mannered, always kind. “A Gentleman in Moscow” kept me happy and contented for two weeks.

Crime stories are always a good distraction. Many of the best mystery plots involve a closed room or an isolated group, so you can get you imagination to work on the possibilities in real time. P.D. James is the queen of them all, and I am a great fan of Georges Simenon, but there are thousands of others. There’s nothing wrong with a good adventure story, when you can’t adventure yourself. Captain Aubrey, the hero of Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent Napoleonic Wars series, ranges the high seas for seventeen volumes, suffering many things much worse than the famous virus. Long series of books like O’Brian’s, or like Trollope’s very different Palliser novels, are perfect for this situation. But Marcel Proust’s great biographical novel, “In Search of Lost Time,” might be too much. It will get you through this virus and the next, but Proust for the inexperienced reader is like a marathon for the inexperienced runner. You want to tell people that you did it, but you don’t want to actually do it.

On the lighter side, don’t despise the classic children’s books. “Alice in Wonderland,” a festival of human foolishness in a thin disguise, always rewards an adult re-reading, as does “The Wind in the Willows” where you learn much about creatures like moles, water rats and toads interacting in their natural habitat. Like Count Rostov, the animals in classic children’s books, from “Winnie-the-Pooh” to “Paddington Bear,” always rise above their situation, whatever it is, which is why we love and admire them so much.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.