Reading in the Age of Coronavirus: A Personal Account

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

2020 started well for me. In January, I travelled down to Milton Keynes for an interview, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD studentship at the Open University, which I eagerly accepted. Then, in February, I was offered a summer job at my local independent cinema in Edinburgh, where I was then living. I was so happy, I danced a little down Lothian Road – and I never dance.

At the same time, I started hearing more and more about a virus in China, but China felt so far away, so it didn’t trouble me much. Then the problem came closer to home, and I was horrified as the situation in Italy worsened. But, up until March, coronavirus still felt distant. Then, in the days following my 24th birthday, everything changed and the UK went into lockdown. With my summer job out of the window, I left Edinburgh and moved back home. There were still many months to go until the start of my doctoral research, so the big question was: How can I keep my mind occupied over the course of the long months ahead? The seemingly endless televised press conferences were driving me to despair, so I turned to literature for solace. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; I am, after all, a literature student.

But where to start? My home is crammed with books I’ve been meaning to read but never had time for. Well, now I had all the time in the world. Perhaps inevitably, I was drawn towards Shakespeare. I had studied several of his plays and seen many more of them performed. Yet his poetry – in its raw, non-theatrical form – remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I was familiar with his most famous sonnets, but I’d never before dared tackle all 154 of them. It was now or never, I decided. But because I had all the time in the world, I would take it slowly: One poem a day, every day, until I’d read them all.

Why is it important to read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a whole, not just as individual works of literature? In my eyes, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle: Sure, each piece might tell a beautiful story, but it’s only once you put them all together that you see the full picture. These poems are significant because they provide a possible glimpse into the Bard’s own love life – with both men and women, it seems. The first 126 are addressed to the ‘fair youth’, whose beauty, according to Sonnet 101, ‘needs no praise’. The remaining 28 are dedicated to the mysterious ‘dark lady’ whose ‘eyes are nothing like the sun’, as Shakespeare famously put it in Sonnet 130. My favourite poem in the collection is an early one, Sonnet 29, in which Shakespeare declares that he would rather be poor and in love than ‘change my state with kings.’ Given Will’s own relatively humble origins, it’s a wonderful challenge to the snobbery of his more elitist contemporary writers, who in the case of Robert Greene looked down on the ‘upstart crow’ who would go on to become the greatest poet in the English language.

Much as I love English literature, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Shakespeare, for instance, drew on the works of many European writers for inspiration. You will have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, no doubt, but what about Giovanni Boccaccio, who influenced both Shakespeare and Chaucer? Born in the Republic of Florence in 1313, Boccaccio is best known for his Decameron, a collection of 100 short stories with ten narrators: Seven women and three men. They have fled their native Florence because of the plague and, in the absence of Netflix, must recount their own stories to entertain themselves over the course of ten days. I studied a handful of these tales during my undergraduate degree and I’d always meant to read the whole thing, but at nearly nine hundred pages, it felt dauntingly long. During lockdown, I took the same approach as I had with the sonnets: One story a day, every day, until I finished.

Unsurprisingly, given that they were written in the 14th century, a good number of these tales are problematic, particularly in their representation of gender and race. But Boccaccio also feels ahead of his time, with several strong female characters who, like in the plays of Shakespeare, cross-dress when necessary. There is Day 2 Story 3, for example, which features an abbot who is really the daughter of the king of England. Some tales are outrightly farcical (the opening and closing stories of Day 3, in particular), whilst others – especially those of Day 4 – are tragic in tone. All of the stories are standalone, with the exception of five (from the eighth and ninth days) which depict the exploits of Bruno and Buffalmacco, who enjoy playing pranks on their unwitting friends Calandrino and Master Simone.

Since all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and most of Boccaccio’s tales are quite short, they weren’t enough to keep me occupied during the long months of lockdown. I wanted to read something big, but with the pandemic still raging, it was hard to concentrate on a conventional novel. As a result, I ended up turning to The Walking Dead, the comic book (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) series that inspired the TV show of the same name. I’d watched the first few series of the show and enjoyed them, but I’d grown bored as the characters wandered aimlessly from episode to episode. I had known for a while about the comic series, but with over thirty volumes (consisting of nearly 200 issues in total!), I’d been wary of starting, in part because I knew it would be very expensive to buy them all in print. This summer, however, I was able to buy digital versions of the whole set relatively cheaply, and I quickly found myself addicted.

The Walking Dead centres on Rick Grimes, an American police officer who wakes up from a coma to discover that a zombie apocalypse has turned the world he knew upside down. Miraculously, he succeeds in finding his wife Lori and their son Carl in a camp outside Atlanta. Whilst at the beginning, the undead are the main threat to Rick and co’s survival, as the series (which ran from 2003 to 2019) develops, the focus shifts from the ‘walkers’ (that’s zombies to you and me) to the surviving humans in this part of the world. A zombie apocalypse might sound outlandish, and yet, reading this series in the time of COVID-19, I could empathise with the survivors’ attempts to adapt to a radically altered world. It was comforting, in a way, to tell myself: Well, at least things aren’t this bad in the real world. (Yet?)

I’m not a big fan of horror and occasionally the writer Robert Kirkman and the artists overdo the gore and violence for shock value, but the fact that the series is in black and white (in contrast to its TV show adaptation) helped to create a degree of distance, reminding me that it is just fiction. Like The Decameron, The Walking Dead is at times problematic, particularly in its early volumes: Most of the men take charge in defending the passive female characters, and non-white characters are few and far between. But over the course of the series, we get more diverse characters, including numerous gay or bisexual individuals. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the series could be. Unlike the action-centred TV version, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead explores complex sociological and philosophical questions about society and human nature: Given the opportunity to completely remake society, where would we begin? And is there a limit to how much one person can endure?

It might not qualify as ‘high literature’, but I have no doubt that Kirkman’s magnum opus, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and Boccaccio’s Decameron, will be read for many years to come, especially in times of adversity like now.

Let me know what you’ve been reading or watching in the comments below, or tweet me @EngLitScholar.

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