Those of us suffering through this interminable — if necessary — lockdown
would do well to conduct a small thought experiment if at any point it becomes oppressive. Imagine having to confine yourself in this manner 20, 10, or even five years ago. The tedium would have been unutterably worse. Twenty years ago, we would have been restricted to the music — cassettes or CDs — that we had on hand, or the tripe that FM wished to force on us. Ten years ago we would be scouring our bookshelves for something we had not already read twice. And five years ago, we in India would have had no Netflix or Prime Video with countless hours of high (or low) quality television on demand. To complain of boredom under these circumstances is somewhat absurd.
Of these three, I will admit that I am most thankful for the ability to keep reading. TV I can take or leave, my records I am happy to listen to multiple times a day, but I do need new books to read. For years, if I was entering into the sort of situation where I would be cut off from bookshops or libraries — like, say, a vacation — I would begin to panic. It is entirely possible that, if we were still in that world, when the prime minister announced the lockdown
I would have headed out immediately and tried to get Full Circle to open up so I could panic-buy.
One should worry, of course, about what this is doing to one small business sector in particular that was already under stress: Bookshops. In India— as in many parts of the world — bookshops are not considered essential businesses. Elsewhere, however, independent bookstores that were already threatened have banded together to up their delivery business. Some of them are refusing to say they’re closed and instead saying they’re “no-contact open”, which is a fun way of thinking about deliveries. But, of course, in India, few bookshops have had their own delivery services and most of the larger delivery organisations are prioritising essentials.
And so we turn to what has already become an old standby — ebooks, ideally for the Kindle. Those of us working from home are already spending enough time staring at luminescent screens, which is why the Kindle’s e-ink screen is so vital — especially if, like me, your peak reading hours are after dinner.
The good thing is that you don’t have to spend an enormous amount if you want to improve yourself by reading a good book, or a series of good books, during this lockdown.
Consider, for example, Project Gutenberg, which has an enormous number — 61,770 — free books, many of them preformatted for the Kindle. The popularity statistics at Gutenberg are revealing. The number one free e-book
on the Gutenberg website is, justifiably, Pride and Prejudice
, which is the very definition of comfort reading. But a clear sense of how much traffic has been routed to Gutenberg during the lockdown comes if you look at what number three is: A Journal of the Plague Year
, by Daniel Defoe. (Hilariously, running Pride and Prejudice
close at number two is a US government publication from the 1940s on how hemp can be used to make paper. My suspicion is not all those tens of thousands of readers are people interested in growing hemp for the purposes of paper-making cottage industry.) If Gutenberg sounds too restrictive, there’s also the Internet Archive’s books section, and Open Library, an Internet Archive project that allows you to borrow books. Both have pandemic specials on; you can also sign up for the Scribd 30-day free trial to access its catalogue.
Yes, a lot of current books, or those under copyright, may not be easily available at these places — though the Internet Archive’s national emergency section has an interesting set of recent publications to browse. The fact is, however, that one should take advantage of this time out to read things one has been postponing — and if you haven’t been postponing reading the classics, you’re not human. In Gutenberg’s top five, for example, is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I have not read — which is perhaps a bad idea, given that if you had to name one book that was both massively influential and (apparently) incredibly readable, Frankenstein would top the list. Also in the top 20: The Brothers Karamazov, which I have read — but in one of the old Soviet editions from Progress or possibly Raduga, which were not exactly top-drawer translations.
But perhaps you want something lighter, something easy to read, but also classic? Well, I have good news: Gutenberg also has a giant collection of P G Wodehouse. Curling up with a Wodehouse is a sure way to beat the lockdown blues: You can’t go wrong with Leave it to Psmith, which for some mystifying reason only has 645 downloads at this point in time. Let’s see if, by the end of the lockdown, it cracks a thousand.