A Year in Books, 2020

One of the many things the pandemic dislocated is the start and the end of the year. What even were January and February 2020? A forgotten prelude, unconnected to the real 2020, which began when we went home from the office in March. When the shops and the schools closed shortly after. When the sun started shining. And when did it end and begin again? Not at Christmas, because straight afterwards, the schools and the shops closed again. Perhaps it ended a few weeks back, with my first vaccination, a moment of grace in the gloved hands of a nurse, followed by 24 hours of lethargy, jetlag head, and the dull ache of societal grief washing through my bones. 

Maybe the end is roundabout now, a year and a bit after we went home, a year after I wrote in an email:

The weather is cold, a sharp Spring cold. The schools have only been closed a week, somehow. I found spaghetti, rice and a small can of baking powder yesterday and it doesn’t feel odd to record that. How is it still March? All of life has been blown away. 

Early in the pandemic, after the banana bread and before the killing of George Floyd, it does seem like time is the problem. All the time I used to use on trains, on the tube, sat vacantly in Pret – it was all just gone. Gone where? All that time that used to be locked up, all it takes is a lock down to set it completely free, a balloon slipping from a child’s hand and into the sky. At first, even the roads are quiet: I can type whole sentences before a car goes past, especially at night. There is nowhere to go. Just the park, and the garden, the lilacs a heavy purple against the full blue sky.

The new day to day needs to be filled with new routines. Zoom. A walk around the neighbourhood. Queuing outside. The house, all of a sudden, does need to be a machine for living in. I cook, clean and we go from kitchen to lounge to garden, and then I take my sons to the park, with the little blue football. The older one goes in goal, the little one follows his own directions and then we climb trees and go see the ducks. We might do all of that in two hours, come home, eat, clean, and then we start again. Otherwise, what else is there to do? Early morning/middle/afternoon/dinnerbathbed, the day is like a symphony with four movements, each one a refinement of the last. In a big city you usually live with a sense that there is always some huge number of infinite things beyond which you could be doing. The zoo, a museum, a meal out. But right now there is not. 

Reading comes back. Anti-racism reading lists, and arguments for and against them. Arguments that you should be reading about the world you want, arguments that you should be reading about the world as it is, and eventually, a simple but necessary conclusion: reading about someone else, somewhere else, some time else, should be part of life. It is the local bookshop that really triggers my reading again. On Instagram, they are candid about how they’re figuring out what to do. What is a shop that’s closed? They throw up a Shopify page, and when you search you can’t find anything. I email them a list of books, PayPal the money, and get back the first few, wrapped in brown paper and string a week or so later. 

I’ve always found buying books to be therapeutic, an act of hope. As Warren Zevon put it:

“We love to buy books because we believe we’re buying the time to read them.” 




I read probably half the books I buy. I find I need to buy enough books to give me some options, but not too many.  

I spent almost the whole year in my own postcode, and it’s very much a typical Victorian suburb of London, a solid bedrock of buildings from the last 1800s with holes from the war filled in with 50s and 60s blocks. Maybe that was why I felt like going back to that period, to the moments before the war, the dread of tragedy coming, and the moments after, the way it ended not with riotous colours, but with something more drab and more questioning. 

I re-read Lust, Caution, which is set in Hong Kong and China as the war begins to tighten its noose; it is simply spectacular, an incredible machine of menace and sadness. It’s hard to believe something so short and concentrated can be so lucid, and at the end, can expand to take in such emptiness and desolation. 

Sam Selvon’s terrific Lonely Londoners was the highlight of the 1950s stuff: I read it at the height of summer and it’s close to perfect, the way it rolls along, through the capers of its characters, and always in the background, the battle between hope and promise and racism and discrimination. It achieves that most wonderful thing for any novel: it feels completely true and real, that it’s just real life typed out and set on a page, yet it is a completely realised work of art and imagination.

Though I cannot think anyone else would link them, I had the same feeling about Circe, which is the one book from 2020 I’d recommend over all the others. Circe herself is an incredible creation – by turns bitter and close to self-loathing and yet curious and open-hearted to the end. She is always deeply compelling – and though it seems odd to say about an immortal witch who’s dad is the actual Sun, she is always so strangely real. Perhaps because she struggles so visibly and rejects so much of what she is given in order to remake it, just to be herself. It is in isolation that she finds herself, alone from society. 

I read Zadie Smith essays – her new slim one on the pandemic, and Feel Free, an older collection, which is marked by Brexit and a life divided between London and New York. I remember reading it while I was in a deserted hospital waiting room, while my son had his arm x-rayed. He had fallen out of a tree, a normal injury injected into the weird COVID timeline. The whole building was strange, wrapped in plastic and warning tape, and there we were, telling a kind of story about the kind of thing that always happens to six year olds. We waited for an hour or so, he took his ibuprofen, and the specialist looking at the X-rays said it was just sprained, and we went home for dinner and cartoons.  

I copy endless lines from her essays, like this one:

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do… They are no substitute for love… love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through. That must be why it frightens so many of us and why we do often approach it indirectly.”

Like every family, we have our flat days, our days filled with not very much at all, and our days of falling out of trees and the like. We have some days that are filled with activities, and this picture at the top is one of them. It is from last year’s gorgeous Spring, when lockdown and COVID were new; we were drawn into the garden by the sun. I’d got some huge vats of poster paint from eBay as the normal sized pots were sold out, so I put out paintbrushes and old cardboard boxes and paper. Owen and I cut up some egg cartons to make a dragon, and then he painted some mountains and a ninja monastery to make a place for it to live. My wife and I sat on the grass and Owen told us the story of the dragon meeting a frog; as with a lot of stories children tell, it was both completely immersive and strangely meta, and I like the way the photo reaches for that: Owen is a clearly visible third character.

One of the delights of Smith’s essays is similar; everything is solid ground to her, whether she’s talking about the real world – gentrification, awkward interactions, banana bread – or the shadow world of imagination, feeling and art. There is simply no difference in her ability to grasp the truth there. Another line copied:

“Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something’ [in lockdown] that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, now what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”

And so she reconciles, truly, if only briefly, how reading, writing, social change, projects and flat days are all linked. Part of becoming middle aged has meant a desire to think differently about creativity. As I age, I realise entropy and re-creation is deeply important. Everything is collapsing all the time. You can’t preserve anything, you can only create, you can only rebuild. Many people think our institutions are permanent and so the challenge is just changing things a little, and making them “fit for future.” We want to preserve the present and haven’t realised the present is mostly already lost.

I am shaped by grief, and by the scientific, scaled up expression of such loss: entropy. Everything is ending and you can only create and make new stuff. You need to be optimistic and embrace that. I always want to be on the side of creation, not conservation. 

[Cross posted from Endless Close Attention, my COVID email / photo project]

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