When the pandemic came, many people’s plans were immediately put on halt – cool trips in Easter and the summer had to be cancelled. Many had, and still have, been put on furlough. GCSEs and A-Levels were cancelled. Many millions were suddenly trapped at home with nothing to do. Then they picked up reading again. In the summer, the sale of classics skyrocketed as people across the country stayed at home and tried to make most of their day by immersing their imagination in a fictitious world. But, unlike basically all other institutions, universities did not spare us from work. Exams went on, albeit in a different format. Nonetheless, I tried to keep reading loads, since I do a degree in English literature.
However, I must say that my experience in reading is drastically altered by the pandemic. I cannot help but be consciously aware of the changes to our everyday lives which became so overwhelming that I started projecting them on the books I read. I remember flipping through Tess of the D’Urbervilles, trying to picture the scene. As she goes out to look for her brother, I abruptly stopped and internally screamed, ‘Did you just forget your mask! Oh my god! Your life is in danger now! We’re in a pandemic!’ Ten seconds later I recollected myself, coming to the realisation that although Tess had to live in a rather slumpy area, she would not die of coronavirus when she went out in Victorian England. Such is the dramatic twist to reading. I still cannot believe that I unconsciously projected the rules of polite society in 2020 and 2021 on a fictitious nineteenth-century society.
Moreover, it strikes me that what I am reading seems no longer important as long as it is fictional. In the past, for all my life, I could always imagine with my eyes closed the scenery depicted in the plot, albeit it being set as early as in the 1590s, and very possibly, in a different country. It did not matter whether I had been there before. I could still imagine it and if I fall in love with the scene, dream of going there in real life and actually putting the name of the city on my bucket list. However, with all the coronavirus restrictions in place, the statutory requirement to take Covid-19 test before or after international travel and to quarantine upon arrival and, having experienced the hassle in real life when I went back to my home town in March last year, even my imagination is completely deprived of its capability to travel. The awareness that non-essential travel is no longer possible in real life unfortunately keeps imagination at bay.
With the whole of UK being placed in a third national lockdown at the time of writing and Durham having being in Tier 3 or equivalent, if not in lockdown, since mid-November, even cafes and coffee shops cannot be opened for dine in. I enjoyed reading in a café or in the SU with super loud television advertisements and the chattering of other students in the back, where many students would find it extremely difficult to concentrate. Whereas now, whenever I try to read I either find it too quiet, or if I go on YouTube for some background noise, the line ‘twenty hot wings for £5.99?’ from a KFC ad was so reminiscent of the busy SU vibe that drifted me on a memory lane of the ‘good old days’ when everyone could just go anywhere they like without a mask and the worry of being exposed to a deadly virus.
It is so difficult for me to read in the pandemic and there are few occasions when reading does not make me extra conscious of the dreadful situation we are in. Sometimes I wonder whether I am the person actively reading, or a Rückenfigur depicted in a romantic painting, where everything is sublime and mysterious. In either case, there is always hope that things will get better in spring and summer, for hope is the strongest force in times of plight and uncertainty.