David Bouchier: A COVID Education

Feb 22, 2021

The COVID fiasco has been educational in some ways. Not only has it hammered home one of life’s most important lessons — that predicting the future is always a waste of time — but it has forced a great many of us to try something different, if only to pass the time we might otherwise have wasted planning for the future.

Hobbies have flourished. There was an outburst of gourmet cooking, and even housekeeping was popular for a while. In the early months, many homes became temples of cleanliness and order before reverting to normal. Embroidery, languages, music, model building and computer games all helped to fill the gap where work and sociability used to be. Fitness and diet regimes flourished briefly, but that sort of thing never lasts for long.

I was hoping that isolation would encourage a burst of creativity. There is a legend that Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was in quarantine during the plague of 1593. If he could do it, perhaps I could, too. But my experimental play about an unpleasant power-crazed old man and his equally unpleasant children was, I could see, somewhat lacking in originality.

So I decided that my COVID distraction would be not a new occupation but an old one — to catch up on my reading. Twelve months later I’m still deciding to do that.

Books themselves are not a problem. We have books the way other people have mice — they are hiding everywhere and multiply when we’re not looking. They are the product of a lifetime of undisciplined collecting with good intentions, but not good enough. There are far too many books that I should have read, but didn’t, books I thought I had read but hadn’t, or books I pretended I had read because the truth would be too embarrassing.

I started with big, heavy volumes, hoping to fill more time. I was quickly reminded that great writers like Dickens, Trollope, and Twain, who wrote an enormous amount, inevitably wrote some pretty poor stuff. I rejected James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (628 pages) out of hand. I read Middlemarch at last and discovered that everyone is right — it is a splendid book. But then, one after another, I was shipwrecked on War and Peace (1,225 pages), Vanity Fair (624 pages) and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (741 pages). There’s something about very long novels that causes me to lose interest, perhaps because I don’t want to spend so much of my real life reading about people who never existed.

The first volume of Marcel Proust’s extraordinary seven-volume novel In search of Lost Time (4,215 pages) had mysteriously vanished from my shelves, so I abandoned that before I started. At the height of my reading ambition, I launched into Sir Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged edition, 700 pages), one of the most famous unread books in the language. But Gibbon still sits gathering dust beside my bed, a bookmark about halfway through, marking a detailed account of the defeat of 30,000 Goths by the army of Emperor Justinian in 535 A.D. That’s where I seem to have stopped, and I’m ashamed of myself.

Self-discipline failed completely when the library re-opened, and I went straight back some of my old favorites: P.D. James, Georges Simenon, Patrick O’Brian. But once this COVID thing is over I really do plan to get back to some serious reading.

Copyright: David Bouchier