The Irish Times view on literature in a time of crisis: If we winter this one out...
At this time of social isolation, books offer not just consolation but a portal to the most profound human connection
Adult fiction sales surged by 66 per cent last week as readers, even those already equipped with ceiling-high To Be Read piles, replenished their stocks. Photograph: Joel Saget/ AFP/ Getty Images
As cinemas, music venues and theatres nationwide have closed their doors, more books than ever are being opened, even though libraries and bookshops too have been forced to shut. Adult fiction sales surged by 66 per cent last week as readers replenish their stocks. The Government too has moved to secure vital supply lines, increasing library budgets by €200,000 to meet the rising demand to borrow ebooks online.
At a time of constant bombardment by bad news, books offer both respite and a more profound perspective. Just as the rise of Trumpism saw a surge in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, so Covid-19 has boosted interest in Albert Camus’s The Plague and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
Many readers are seeking out old favourites and comfort reads, reconnecting with the wisdom and wit and emotional engagement that sustained them before. Some want light relief: to laugh in the time of corona. You will find four pages of writers’ recommendations in Ticket today. Others test their mettle with horror or dystopian fiction, or learn about the history of pandemics.
Readers are turning to the classics too, judging the time right to at last tackle War and Peace, Middlemarch or the collected works of Proust. Bestselling author Stephen King, no stranger to terror, revealed that he had finally read Ulysses. His verdict was mixed, however, not to say muddled: “I understand it better than I expected, but I have to say it’s really f***ing Irish.”
Poetry, too, with its words supercharged with solace and grace, is being read and shared enthusiastically. Seamus Heaney’s line, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”, has received the ultimate accolade of appearing as graffiti on a Dublin wall. At a time of virtual house arrest, books can transport us all over the globe, indeed can help us imagine other, better worlds, by immersing us in the world of ideas. At a time of social isolation, books offer not just consolation but a portal to the most profound human connection.