The first lockdown in the UK back in March had a mixed effect on our reading habits. For some who found themselves furloughed there was more time than ever to read for pleasure; for others who were used to reading during long commutes, it felt like there was less time to read. The act of reading is incredibly personal and choosing what book to read next is even more personal under lockdown conditions: whilst some read to escape the reality of the restrictions, others seek comfort by reading about similar circumstances either fictional or real. As we continue into the second lockdown these are some books that I would recommend to anyone looking for something to read.
Book 1: The Myth of the Blitz by Angus Calder
Since the start of the Covid19 crisis there have been many comparisons to the British experience of the Second World War. The pandemic has often been described as a battle, the virus the enemy. At the start we were told to Keep Calm and Carry On and in March, when the first lockdown was announced, we were promised that we were All In It Together. The Queen even reassured us in her speech that We’ll Meet Again and recently the scientists working on the vaccine have been compared to the Codebreakers of Bletchley Park. The Covid19 crisis demonstrates perfectly how the memory and myths of the Second World War remain a source of comfort for British society thirty years after the publication of Angus Calder’s The Myth of the Blitz.
The Myth of the Blitz is one of the greatest and most influential history books of the twentieth century. Angus Calder, who devoted decades of his life to studying the history of the Second World War, wrote The Myth of the Blitz after reflecting on the way that the Second World War had been mythologised by popular culture – and by historians like himself. The book is immensely readable with Calder navigating his readers skilfully through the confluence of wartime myths and realities, demonstrating powerfully how all of society helped nurture the idea of the Blitz Spirit which remains strong even in today’s discussions.
Book 2: The Machine Stops (1909) by E. M. Forster
The Machine Stops is a science fiction novella by E. M. Forster, who is better known for his rich cultural novels such as A Room with a View or Howards End. In this short story though, Forster displays a masterful skill of blending science fiction with horror resulting in one of the most engaging and existentially terrifying stories about what life is and the purpose of existence.
Forster depicts the future as one that has become fully interconnected and globalised thanks to technological innovations. In The Machine Stops people spend all their lives in small individual hubs in which all of our needs are met by a giant machine which can deliver us food when we are hungry, entertain us with music if we are bored, reads us poetry on demand and lets us avoid face-to-face contact through video conferences with loved ones and friends. Vashti, the main character, is very content at the start of the story as she is able to deliver all of her lectures whilst working from home and her home is always safe because no matter what happens The Machine always look after her. The Machine is eternal, it has always been there, and it always looks after humanity’s basic needs. Until one day when The Machine simply stops…
The world that Forster paints is prescient in its predictions of modern technology such as the internet, but it is remarkably prescient too in its depictions of modern society’s dependence on that technology. From an historical perspective the story tells a lot about past perceptions of the future and the uncertainly that lies in looking too far ahead and yet it reads like Forster wrote this back in March during lockdown himself.
Book 3: Markievicz: Prison Letters and Rebel Writings edited by Lindie Naughton
Constance Markievicz was an Irish revolutionary in the early twentieth century who played an instrumental role in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the struggle for Irish independence. In 1918 she became the first woman elected to the House of Commons whilst still serving a prison sentence for her role in the Easter Rising. Markievicz would spend many long days and wintery nights in various goals and prisons from Kilmainham to Holloway during which time she was a prolific letter writer. Despite the harshness of her conditions in prison, Markievicz’s spirt remained strong and her letters show that she often spends more time comforting her companions on the other side than being comforted herself.
Markievicz’s letters to her family and friends reveal the strength of her beliefs, her political astuteness and the warmth of her personality. Although restricted in a confined, grey prison cell, Markievicz’s correspondence invokes the rich and beautiful imagery of the Irish landscapes, especially through her memories of County Sligo and her home, Lissadell House, with its wonderful views of Ben Bulben mountain. Markievicz’s letters and writings give us an insight into Irish politics, society, class and culture in a personal and engaging fashion – it also gives us an insight into the vibrancy of humanity under lockdown.
Book 4: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was a nineteenth century abolitionist, social reformer and writer. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass provides a first-hand account of his life as a slave in the US, from his experience of being born into slavery on a brutal and harsh plantation, his resistance in the face of oppression in the city of Baltimore, to his eventual escape to the North. The book, first published in 1845, quickly became a bestseller and turned Douglass into a political celebrity; it remains just as compelling a read today and one that is essential reading for anyone interested in American history and politics.
Douglass’ account is a powerful reminder of the importance of education as a form of empowerment. It details how, as a young slave, he was forbidden from learning how to read which made him quickly recognise the importance of education. Throughout his youth, he did everything he could to take an education from those who would withhold it from him, trading bread with poor white children in the neighbourhood in exchange for ‘that more valuable bread of knowledge’. He would trick other kids into teaching him a new letter. Over weeks, months and years, through observation, trickery and bribery, he learnt to read letter by letter and word by word. Later in his life he used that education to teach fellow slaves to read at significant risk to himself. For him reading was one of the most powerful and liberating acts one could do. As he would later say, “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature”.
Book 5: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
The story of Jack the Ripper is almost universally well known. Newspapers, novels, TV shows and movies have told, retold and reimagined the Ripper murders ever since 1888. However, the story of the five women who he killed has remained largely untold. Rubenhold’s excellent book, The Five, brings these women to the forefront of the discussion, examining their lives in the wider context of nineteenth century London and telling the reader their stories.
The Five doesn’t just avoid going down the well-trodden path of speculating about Jack the Ripper’s identity, instead it intentionally treads its own parallel path by focusing on the lives of Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, Mary Ann Nichols, and Elizabeth Stride. It fundamentally challenges the problematic myths surrounding the murders of 1888, including the idea that all of these women were targeted because they were soliciting sex. Instead Rubenhold proves convincingly and with enviable prose that these women were most likely targeted because they were homeless and asleep. The Five is a much-needed book, telling a powerful story and most importantly it is history at its best. You might think that there is little new left to discover about the case of Jack the Ripper but Rubenhold quickly and expertly disproves that assumption in a captivating account that will help several nights of lockdown pass quickly.