Literature through lockdown: What we can learn from reading the classics


By Kate Bowie, Second Year, English

With the end of lockdown looming, it seems a lot of young people have turned to reading, or re-reading, the classics. But, can we find new value in dusting off our paper-back Penguins in a post-corona world?

According to their recent survey for World Book Night, The Reading Agency found almost a third of the population read more during lockdown. While this increase might suggest the obvious given the lack of much else to do after exhausting Netflix’s recommendations, the ‘particular spike’ of 45 percent of young people who’ve picked up extra volumes is very interesting.

The charity found that the majority of these books fell under ‘classic fiction’, the other popular genre being ‘thriller’, something that perhaps highlights the house-bound nation’s thirst for a little excitement.

The majority of these books fell under ‘classic fiction’ | Epigram / Robin Connolly

Publishers reported Penguin Classic’s sales rising 65 percent the week before lockdown. This stockpiling of canonical and modern classics might speak to the starry-eyed idealism of those first few weeks inside, where we convinced ourselves we’d be fluent in French and have finished that screenplay we’ve been meaning to write by the end of it all.

The Reading Agency found almost a third of the population read more during lockdown

While not all of us are surrounded by the debris of Waterstone orders, many probably have noticed the outlandish number of classics they’d ‘definitely get round to’ gathering dust under their beds - some maybe even picked up a few. But, what does classic literature have to add to young people’s post-pandemic experience as we crack open their covers?

Lockdown’s endless free time gave us a unique mental space and relaxed attitude to approach intimidating classic works; this is something we should carry on applying as we re-enter the world of early starts and packed schedules. The formidable length of War and Peace, the complex narrative of Crime and Punishment, the Parisian sewer jargon of Les Misérables- it all takes a level of time and confidence to approach, and weeks without responsibility has offered young people just that.

Publishers reported Penguin Classic’s sales rising 65 percent the week before lockdown | Epigram / Robin Connolly

Now, more than ever, we are bombarded with fast-paced, consumable online content. As the rest of society starts to speed back up, keeping an unhurried appreciation for the intimating is no bad thing.

Publishers reported Penguin Classic’s sales rising 65 percent the week before lockdown.

Not only does the act of reading classics have a unique value as we go back to ‘normal life’, the content of these books obviously also has a new relevance. The survey found many respondents credited their extra reading to a need for ‘release, escapism or distraction’. Whether it be the first trickles of professional emails, (bosses aware of these ‘unprecedented times’ but who do need a hand next week), or the worsening global disaster of every new month, escapism has never been so valuable.

What better time to revisit Middle-Earth than when the original is in tatters? Absorbing yourself in the hidden passive aggression of Middlemarch’s niceties is all the more appealing when the alternative is the insults of world leaders plastered over Twitter.

Finally, the breakdown of the world as we knew it has, unsurprisingly, left many looking for answers and understanding, an arena the classics are qualified for. Seconds away from attacking your siblings after months together? The Lord of the Flies could be worth a read. Newly long-distance relationship taking its toll? Love in the Time of Cholera might offer a new perspective. Odysseus’s years of solitude undoubtably hits different after that quarantine isolation.

The easing of lockdown brings with it opportunity for (distanced) socializing, tentative pub visits and a host of activities less isolated than settling down to a good book; saying that, as the strangeness of the last few months is gradually left behind, hopefully the benefits of classic fiction are not.

5 reads for anyone interested in immersing themselves in the realm of classics

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker – for when you need someone else’s life to cry about

Courtesy of Waterstones

Perfume, Patrick Süskind – for when the boredom kicks in and you need some off-beat absurdism

Courtesy of Waterstones

Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy – for when you need some heart-warming wish fulfilment

Courtesy of Waterstones

To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee – for when you need your faith in humanity restored

Courtesy of Waterstones

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell – for when you want to wallow in the state of the world

Courtesy of Waterstones

Featured: Unsplash / Clem Onojeghuo

Have you been reading any of the classics during lockdown? Let us know!