A variation on this article is going back to some of the mystery or sci-fi series that you remember fondly which I am doing a Lot.
Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Defoe – why are so many turning to classic novels?
As sales of literary heavyweights soar, Booker winner Penelope Lively says that getting lost in a good book is now more relevant than it has ever been
Sat 25 Apr 2020 10.05 EDT Last modified on Sat 25 Apr 2020 10.33 EDT
There aren’t many aspects of the lockdown that the author Penelope Lively enjoys but reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to her 27-year-old granddaughter on video calls is one of them. “We discovered that for some extraordinary reason she’d never read it in her childhood,” Lively says. “So we’re each taking it in turns to read a bit to each other – and thoroughly enjoying it.”
Isolated in her home in north London, Lively, an 87-year-old widow, has also been scouring her own bookshelves for classic novels she can read alone. Currently, she is devouring all of the Irish writer William Trevor’s books: “I suddenly realised there was a lot of him I’d never read, and I’d almost forgotten how amazingly good he is.”
For Lively, who is probably best known for her 1987 Booker prize-winning novel Moon Tiger, there is no better antidote to the lockdown than a classic novel. “It’s that old cliche of getting lost in a book. You want something that you can get immersed in, that takes you out of what is an extremely difficult time for all of us – and a lot of classic novels do that.”
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively.
She should know. Lively is one of the few authors alive whose books are published as “modern classics” by Penguin. It is an honour she did not expect. “When I look back at the sort of ‘other person’ I was when I wrote Moon Tiger … that person would certainly have been astonished to be told that, in 30-odd years’ time, it would be seen as a classic.”
Sales of Penguin classics have seen a 65% increase since the lockdown began. To Lively, an author who describes her fiction as “trying to impose order upon chaos, to give structure and meaning to what is apparently random”, this comes as no surprise. “I think this period, if it’s doing nothing else, is probably making reading a more central part of people’s lives than before.”
Fiction also offers an easy way to leave the lockdown behind. “Reading is always, in one sense, a form of escape,” says Lively. “It’s escaping into a life which is not the life that you’re actually having to live. That’s why we do it.”
Lively has often followed the English tradition of saying serious things in a relatively lighthearted way. She recalls reaching for classic novels by other authors who did this – Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene – whenever she lacked insight into her feelings as a young woman. “We go to fiction to discover how fictional people in literature may have reacted to the same sort of experiences we have, such as loss and death – and love.”
Personally, she is finding the lockdown “extremely depressing” and feels “very sorry” for the young, who are missing out on both job opportunities and the social life they should be having. “But I also feel sorry for my age group, because we’ve only got a few years left. And at least one of those years – possibly more – is being effectively taken away from us.”
She has not found the pandemic conducive to writing, but does take comfort in her garden. She also makes time to read every day. With all forms of entertainment outside the home shut down, time-consuming classics seem more attractive than usual.
“It’s interesting that they’re all rather sombre books, as though people are looking for books that reflect the sombre time that we’re in,” says Lively. “I’m a great believer in the sense that you can learn lessons from history. And that spills over into the reason that we read fiction and what we’re getting out of fiction. We’re experiencing a different slant on life. And that will affect how you then look at your own behaviour, and your own life.”
I think this period, if it’s doing nothing else, is probably making reading a more central part of people’s lives than before
This may be why people are turning to classic plague literature in droves: sales of the 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Yearby Daniel Defoe, about the Great Plague of London in 1665, are up by 750% since the lockdown, while sales of The Decameron, a 14th-century collection of stories set during the Black Death, have increased by 288%, according to Penguin.
But there is also a trend of people turning to more optimistic classics about spring and nature. The Enchanted April, a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim about women reviving their marriages or finding love on the Italian Riviera, has seen sales rocket by nearly 5,000%, while demand for A Month in the Countryby JL Carr has jumped 143%. Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Lively thinks the uplift in sales of classics suggests people are trying to spend their time productively. “They’re thinking: these books are always said to be amazing, now’s my opportunity to read them.”
But not even she thinks it is possible to survive on a diet of classics alone. There is one other thing she recommends: “A glass of wine in the evening. That helps.”
Four lockdown literary hits
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871). Audiobook sales up 30%, according to Penguin. Love, social change and marriage between incompatible people: it’s all here, in a small town in Victorian-era middle England.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891). Audiobook sales up 59%. A handsome young man sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty – and destroys himself in the process.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (1969). Ebook sales up 154%. The memoir of a poet’s epic journey from the Cotswolds to London and Spain, where he is trapped by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war.