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Self-isolation reading list? Don’t make my mistakes…

Woodcut from the second edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1483)
Woodcut from the second edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1483)

I discovered the joys of self-isolation before most people. Thirty years ago I broke my leg very badly and was forced to be horizontal for five weeks. I soon realised what an opportunity this presented to do things for which the time was seldom available. This was before digital television, box sets and the internet, so although listening to music was easy, my recreation came mostly from books. I have realised ever since that I did not, with one exception, use the time entirely wisely, so I shall begin with my errors.

It was soon after the publication of the final instalment of Randolph Churchill’s and Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume life of Winston Churchill. I resolved to read them from cover to cover. I did. I learned much that served me well in my subsequent life as a biographer and historian, but they are also boring on a level it is almost impossible to describe, especially the Gilbert volumes, which drip tedium from every page. On top of that, they are hagiographical. In retrospect it was an act of masochism. If they are on your shelves, leave them there.

I then read Anthony Powell’s 12 Dance to the Music of Time novels. Their alleged literary merit was bestowed on this ultra-snob author by generations of snob reviewers; they have very little. Powell is hopeless at developing character and one searches for anything approaching a plot in vain. They are the ultimate confidence trick by the half-educated on the half-educated. Avoid.

Finally, mercifully, I re-read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I had first encountered at university. Having grown up a little in the intervening decade I got much more out of them, not just about human nature (almost entirely absent from Powell) but about life in Faubourg Paris in the belle époque. I read them in translation, which I regret, but it helped when another decade or so later I read them in French. If you can, read them in the original: Proust’s French is sublime, and reaches a level unseen in all but a few of his fellow countrymen.

These days, thanks to the digital revolution, there are many more options. I wrote here recently about America’s superior television: so a lockdown offers the perfect chance to watch The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire or Breaking Bad in their entirety. However, since I know my readers are more eclectic even than that, here are a few more suggestions that time doesn’t often permit one to indulge in.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men  Credit: Carin Baer/AMC

A day could be profitably spent reading Paradise Lost in its entirety, to capture the musical mastery of Milton’s verse. There are “translations” of The Canterbury Tales into modern English, but middle English is not that difficult, and an online dictionary will solve most problems. Andrew Marvell is known just for a couple of poems but repays deeper investigation; as do John Donne and Edmund Spenser. Their complete works are almost all online. But for those drawn to English poetry, warnings are required: the best of Wordsworth and Tennyson is brilliant, but large acreages are awful. 

This may be the chance to read George Eliot beyond Middlemarch. Some of Dickens’s less well-known novels – that is, those one has not seen on television – such as Dombey and Son or The Old Curiosity Shop, or Martin Chuzzlewit, have enormous charm but are usually too long, even for a lockdown. Trollope can amuse, but most of his novels are turgid and repetitive of plot. The odd one or two – The Belton Estate, He Knew He Was Right or Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite – would do little harm.

Perhaps music, as so often, can offer the greatest consolation. Never grasped Wagner’s Ring cycle? Now is the time. Worry about the story later; just begin with the superb sound-picture. Listen to BBC Radio 3 and discover some unknown composers, or unfamiliar back catalogues: Holst went far beyond The Planets, just as Ravel went far beyond Bolero, or Dvořák beyond the New World Symphony. The musical world is your oyster.

I forgot one stupendous work of literature: the King James Bible. Perhaps in this time of portentousness it may be too close to home; but even for atheists, it is a fantastic read.