Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
Adrian Tilley, 73, retired English teacher, Okehampton, Devon
It had been lurking in the bookcase for too long. I love Dickens but I couldn’t find the time to approach it – and suddenly there was time. To weave together a family epic across two continents and address issues of truth, corruption, honesty and friendship, and to make it uproariously funny at the same time – amazing. Martin’s adventures in America are so relevant to today, with the array of Trumpian entrepreneurs all working as confidence tricksters and snake oil salesmen. It left me totally in awe of what Dickens could achieve. For my next book, I will return to Graham Greene.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Sebastian Born, 67, retired literary agent and former associate director at the National Theatre, London
The legend is that it made Norman Mailer a star overnight. His star has fallen considerably in the last 25 years, as he represents the writer as a white predatory male with an ego and other appendages the size of Moby-Dick. So I wanted to see whether the novel stands up and what made it so innovative and powerful when it was published.
Mailer’s technique of interior monologue paints a human landscape as diverse and threatening as is the jungle that surrounds the characters. He reveals the variety of attitudes and allegiances to authority, nationality, religion and sex with a truth and honesty that must have been a shock to readers who assumed that their fighting forces were uniformly upright, patriotic and clean living.
Ultimately it does feel a bit of a shaggy dog story and spends pages and pages rubbing the reader’s nose in Mailer’s own sexist and other prejudices. But it is a monumental achievement for a man in his mid-20s and still stands as a contribution to the grimy human reality of frontline combat in the most hostile conditions. My next book will be Dombey and Son.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Angela Davies, 49, teaching assistant, Stafford
It’s the Dickens I’ve struggled with most. I’ve read a few and always loved them but this one’s charms had been eluding me. However, this time, reading it among the modern-day trials and tribulations made me much more sympathetic to Mr Dorrit and it’s another Dickens I’ve fallen in love with. The starting passages, where the main characters meet while in quarantine in Italy had a very new type of resonance with me too! I found it quite ironic to read about characters experiencing Victorian quarantine while living in a modern-day equivalent. I think my next book will be something more modern, maybe by Sally Rooney.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Matt Hemingway, 28, IT project manager, York
It has been sat on my shelf for about five years after my first attempt to read it was aborted a quarter of the way through. I was made redundant so I thought it was now or never to get through it. It’s easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read and the only one where I’ve needed to comb the internet after each chapter in order to understand the gist of it. However this effort was definitely well rewarded. I was really impressed with the breadth of writing styles that each chapter included – parodying other writers from the past, or chapters solely about food and many others – while still broadly relating to the original Odysseus and being pretty funny in places, too. It’s definitely one that I am pleased to have read, but won’t attempt again for a good few years! My to-read pile is always huge but I’ll probably tackle John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography next.
The Prelude by William Wordsworth
John Main, retired kidney doctor, North Yorkshire
I was inspired by a staycation near Ullswater and frankly it was quite hard work. Wordsworth builds up huge multi-clause sentences and his language, although designed to be much more intelligible than the conventional poetry of the day, is to my late 20th-century brain, hard to follow at times. He vividly describes how his whole worldview is brought into question by the collapse of the French revolution; despite that awfulness his despair deepens when Britain declares war on France – maybe there are worse things than Brexit. He did come across as a bit intense and humourless though. My next book will be Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Mark Thursten, 63, retired civil servant, Kingsdown, Kent
I had been reading a lot of contemporary fiction (I volunteer at a local Oxfam bookshop) and was looking to revisit an old Russian or French classic when the store temporarily closed because of Covid-19. However, I had just finished Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote which I found a delight, so I decided on tackling the real thing as I had obviously missed some of the inferences.
The only word I can think of to sum up the novel’s impact on me is “extraordinary”. I thought Greene’s take on the story was refreshing and extremely funny but had no idea that a book so old and relating to a long lost time and culture could be both so hilarious and atmospheric yet relevant to the peculiar time we are living through. I didn’t think at the outset that this would have been such a parable for the world’s current and dangerous situation. I am now reading Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Helen Currie, retired educational adviser, Reading
I loved this at the time in early lockdown when I read it. Thinking about it now, it has so much resonance with the current situation. The setting of the sanatorium gives us a medical background, telling all the residents how seriously ill they are or how much at risk they are, but the patients’ responses vary wildly in how closely they stick to the advice they are given. It’s difficult to judge how reliable the medical opinions are as there seems to be a vested interest in the long-term illness of all the residents.
I would like to read it again in a few years’ time, having lived through this pandemic and in, we hope, different circumstances. Next I want to try Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, but am tempted to listen to the Mike Walker radio adaptation first.
Light in August by William Faulkner
Susan Montiel, 67, retired, Tlaxcala, Mexico
I wanted to revisit it and it was one of the few books in English that I had brought with me. I remembered that it had put a spell on me the first time I had read it: his use of language, the diverse characters, the evocation of the still suffering, unrepentant deep south in the US barely 70 years after the civil war. The past was nowhere near “over” when he wrote it.
Because of lockdown I read the book slowly. At a distance of 20 years or so from the first reading, I learned so much more about racism and misogyny, and the multiple issues that divide the US today. As a former teacher, I wish it could be taught in schools with all of its harsh, non-politically-correct language, its crudeness and its quiet, underlying optimism. There is so much to be learned from Faulkner, but his lessons are harsh and easily misinterpreted and the US is unfortunately still not ready for him. My next book will be something lighter and mind-numbingly entertaining to get me through this frightening election.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Fiona Calder, 73, retired, Berwick-upon-Tweed
I finally read the copy that was a birthday present a few years ago. I had attempted to read it on a number of occasions and had never progressed beyond the first few chapters. The writing seemed so dense, and the print so small, that it made difficult bedtime reading. So I reckoned that lockdown was the ideal time to tackle it once and for all.
Once I had got used to the style I became immersed in the Middlemarch world and absolutely loved it. Memorable characters are beautifully realised and I found it eminently readable. It is beautifully written and filled with acute observations of the human condition. Funny at times as well. A marvel in fact. No wonder it is a classic. Although not (yet) a classic I am having a determined go at The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. This time I am determined to see it through.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Jim W, school teacher, Maine, US
I love tales of doomed relationships, of love against the odds, and Anna just leapt out of the bookshelf in April, where she’d been for quite some time. The weight of the book seemed inconsequential, after having spent a month at home already. So I started reading, giving myself permission to stop after 50 pages if it was too much of a slog. I’d reached that by the second afternoon of reading.
It was instant love. I fall for characters very easily, and within a few meetings I could tell Anna was just my type: passionate and frustrated, intelligent, bored and flawed. As I got to grips with the puzzle of Russian naming conventions, each character delighted, angered or cheered me. The exploration of human desire, societal demands and the hazards of intimacy made perfect sense, and every afternoon I wanted more of this book, until my nap overtook me. I enjoyed it up until (spoiler) Anna’s death, and then found it pointless. My next book will be War and Peace, of course.
The Stand by Stephen King
Jaquie Feldman, art tutor, Northwood
At 1,300 pages it was always the book I was saving for that “rainy day”. I suffer with scoliosis and in normal times to be carrying this size and weight around with me wouldn’t have been wise, so yes, a perfect book for lockdown!
At first I was put off by the main theme of a worldwide pandemic, but King’s vivid writing gradually draws the reader in, and all those pages later, having invested in the stories of so many unusual characters, I’d finished the book! Despite the obvious parallels, I was swept away. I love bleak books so might reread The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
David, 25, student, Glendale, California, US
It’s one of the three big difficult books I want to finish before I die (Infinite Jest and Ulysses being the others). Also, there was an online reading group going through it on Reddit. They have people who have read the book before so I thought I would be able to catch more reading with them than I would alone.
Honestly the book is great. It’s very frustrating at times because there are some sections where I understood absolutely nothing, but when the book worked well for me it was amazing. He writes like absolutely no one else and even manages to have some genuinely fun scenes. I want something light and fun next so will read The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Stephen Hird, 49, teacher, Yorkshire
I chose it partly because I have a long-held love of Russian classics, but also because of my age. I will be 50 next year, and War and Peace seemed like one of those milestone books that I should already have read. I read a lot, and I’m not usually intimidated by size or page numbers.
I enjoyed it. The size, the number of its characters, the density of some of the war scenes: none of this proved difficult, as it is filled with moments where Tolstoy captures the essence of a character’s emotion, illustrating a thought or a look, a physical reaction or an inner struggle. I did find myself waiting for the peace whilst reading about the war, as I connected much more with those sections. I would have to say that I prefer Anna Karenina in many ways, which I will probably reread at some point. I am considering Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon as the next big challenge, which is far more intimidating in various ways, although not enough to put me off.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Alex, works for the local authority, Manchester
I’m a big fan of Latin American and South American writers – Borges, Marquez, Cortázar – and this book fit snugly into that literary tradition. The Savage Detectives is the shorter of Bolaño’s famous works, a mere 500ish pages that pales in comparison to the iconic 1,000-page tome 2666 (which I’ve also never read) so I thought I’d start with the so-called “easier one”.
I loved it. It went above and beyond what I expected. The central concept was completely mesmerising: the story of two characters on the run is told through the testimonies of people they interact with, spanning the whole globe and taking place over decades. It seemed to have everything that felt missing in lockdown, namely geographical freedom, the sensation of time passing, and lots of different perspectives from different people. I’ve taken a short intermission, but next it has to be 2666, no?
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Mary Andrews, 60, carer, Basingstoke
A close friend told me her son challenged her to read The Brothers Karamazov during lockdown. I thought, I’ve had those two books in my bookcase for 20 years, so I’ll join in too, and then we can encourage each other to keep reading and discuss interesting or confusing parts as we go along. When I realised I was going to spend many weeks in, shielding my 91-year-old father who lives with me, I felt determined to try to use the time usefully.
I was particularly glad to read these books to grapple with questions of atheism and the existence of God. I really wanted to get stuck into something deep, especially at that time, when everyone was confronting their own mortality. It was a very thought-provoking read on the issues of faith, doubt, free will and being non-judgmental. I really enjoyed the feeling that my brain was being well stimulated. It was an ideal book to meditate on the purpose of life when all around us, everything we’d taken for granted, was being shaken by Covid-19. My next book will be A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Culture series by Iain M Banks
Charlotte Pache, senior manager for international legal services business, Melbourne, Australia
I’d read Iain Banks as a teenager but never touched his sci-fi despite years of urging from friends in the know. In recent years I’d started picking up more sci-fi and that piqued my interest. After lockdown started in March, I decided I needed something substantial to get my teeth into. Where better to start than the Scottish writer’s 10-book series?
They were a total revelation. A real tour de force; a sustained feat of imagination, thorough, intense, consistent and above all utterly enjoyable. I felt genuinely sad when I finished the last one that there will never be any more. I’ve not decided yet what my next book will be but am looking for recommendations!
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Miranda Nunhead, 21, student, London
I’d always put it off because I didn’t have the time (it’s a chunky book after all) and suddenly I had the time. Also the final book of the trilogy had just come out and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Now I know!
Aside from being totally brilliant, it’s very topical. The book almost begins with a plague to which the locals respond by quarantining for the literal 40 days and “travelling abroad as little as possible”. It also features a vaguely deranged leader having his whims kept in check by a clever lawyer. Thank God that has no bearing on life today ... Now I’m back at uni, and reading vast quantities for work and not for pleasure, I’m going to read something a little lighter. Maybe Twilight, or War and Peace.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (Translated by Edward G Seidensticker)
David Peter, retired, Llandrindod Wells, Wales
It had been intimidating me on my bookshelf for about 20 years, and its sheer size had been an insurmountable barrier. But finally, in lockdown, I really had no excuse.
I loved it – a fascinating glimpse into Japanese court life in the middle ages, and superbly illustrated in my edition with woodcut illustrations by Yamamoto Shunsho. Surprisingly it felt like a very modern work and could have been set in any European court over the last thousand years or so. The characters of Genji, Kaoru particularly, and those of the many princesses are superbly and sympathetically drawn. My next book will be Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Emil, 32, researcher, Oslo, Norway
My copy of Moby-Dick – a cheap, pocket-size edition printed on what feels like tissue paper – had been following me around for years. I don’t remember when I got it, but I do remember taking my first crack at it as a teenager with cultural pretensions but precious little patience.
One hundred and seventy years later, Melville’s writing remains vivid, giving off pungent whiffs of brine and blubber (I feel I can use terms like those now, thanks to the book’s overwhelming attention to the minutiae of the whaling business). I got the sense that he must have had fun writing it. As a reader, I felt by turns exhilarated and exhausted.
I’m happy I read it, and that I made it the whole way through. Still, I wonder, as I often do after reading a classic: to what extent did I enjoy it sincerely, because it appealed to me, and to what extent did I enjoy it because I knew I was supposed to? My next book will be Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin.