If you’re an avid reader, no doubt you’ve broken some personal reading records between March 2020 and March 2021. A year of a global pandemic will do that to a person. Maybe you also binged on Disney+, learned to bake bread, did jigsaw puzzles, took countless walks, put in a home garden, cleaned and organized, or remodeled your house. But seriously, not if any of those things cut into your reading time, right?
It was a year of amazing reading opportunity. A golden permission slip, a guilt-free year of Nothing To Do and Nowhere To Go. So we stayed home. We rejoiced when libraries reopened, then closed again, then offered curbside service. And we read books that sustained us, comforted us, and kept us sane.
When we’re faced with an ever-shifting political and economic landscape, stay-at-home orders, and little to do outside our own small circle of home, it’s no surprise that readers turn to books for sustenance, comfort, and sanity. As we passed the one-year COVID anniversary this month, I thought back about my year with books and how it was different from others. I learned a few things this year:
1. Comfort reads are a real and precious thing
a.k.a., Oh Agatha, what would I have done without you?
By far my favorite comfort reads during this past year were my dearly beloved Agatha Christie mysteries. Thankfully, I own them all in various mismatched paperbacks collected over the past 30 years, so library closures didn’t affect my ability to get my hands on a Poirot, Marple, or lesser-known detective whenever I needed a fix. They’re all rereads for me, but since I’ve been blessed with reading amnesia (I don’t remember plots/endings nearly as well as some people do) when I reread, it’s often like I’m reading it again for the first time.
My love of Agatha comes from my mom. Now, Mom and I didn’t have much in common, but we bonded over books. During a very difficult time in my childhood, while we were escaping domestic violence with a far-away move, no money, no car, and no friends, Agatha held us together and provided comfort and stability in our lives (thank you, God, for that tiny library just two blocks away in our town of 500 people). So it’s no surprise to me that I continue to turn to Agatha for my comfort reads whenever I’m faced with challenges in life.
Almost everything she wrote is worth reading, but during this past year, I especially enjoyed Remembered Death, A Caribbean Mystery, Sad Cypress, Murder in Retrospect, and Murder at Hazelmoor.
I knew Agatha Christie was still popular even today, but I didn’t realize how many people turned to her during this pandemic. My highly unscientific Facebook poll shows people also turning to the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Gilman, Louise Penny, and Jacqueline Winspear for whodunit comfort reading.
2. I had time to read classics, but they were unexpectedly underwhelming
Maybe it was just the wrong year to read classics I had somehow missed. Maybe I didn’t have the brain for it, or the fortitude or something. Maybe I just picked the wrong books. I gave it a gallant effort, and I’m no stranger to English literature (former English teacher and current homeschool mom here). Whatever it was, these classics were a chore and left me longing for something much more interesting and enjoyable: Silas Marner (it was so promisingly short, but alas, I do not like George Eliot, something I should have learned once and for all after Middlemarch back in college); The Little Prince (why, oh why, do people love this strange, pointless little book?); Northanger Abbey (note to self: please stop trying to like Jane Austen—you just don’t, and you need to accept that); and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (okay, Russian lit is maybe not the best choice to read during a pandemic).
One notable exception is a classic that I loved: The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins’ mysterious, better-than-Dickens novel that contains one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, Marian Halcombe.
3. Revisiting books I had loved years ago was a good strategy
When the libraries closed, I vowed to “read my shelves,” meaning: I will read the many books I already own rather than always be looking for something new. This plan worked better than I could have hoped. There was a reason I had kept copies of dozens and dozens of beloved books from decades past. I didn’t want to part with them just in case I’d want to read them again—and now was the perfect time.
I went to my shelves and made a list of all the books I wanted to reread while I was stuck at home. I’m happy to say that I made it through many of them and without exception, I loved them all over again. Some of them were children’s classics read for homeschool (The Door in the Wall, A Wrinkle in Time), while some were books I had held onto simply because I couldn’t bear to part with them years ago. I read these and more: Gone with the Wind, The Grand Sophy, Cold Sassy Tree, Rebecca, and the Gilead trilogy—Gilead, Home, and Lila. I’m still looking forward to rereading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, James Herriot’s books, The Joy Luck Club, more Daphne du Maurier, and my favorite Nobel prize-winner that few people know about—but now you do: Kristin Lavransdatter.
4. Endings matter
Charles Dickens has a lot of words and he’s not afraid to use them. I was reminded of this when plowing through A Tale of Two Cities. L.M. Montgomery is the beloved author of the Anne of Green Gables books (huge winners in the comfort reading category), but I’ve never read her, so I picked up The Blue Castle with great anticipation.
For Dickens, the last few paragraphs of A Tale of Two Cities redeemed the entire book. Is it possible to be somewhat detached and even bored through 450 pages and then cry your heart out and vow to be a better person over the last scene? Yes, yes it is.
For Montgomery, The Blue Castle was delightful, entertaining, enchanting … and then the contrived, over-the-top, fairly-tale ending arrived without warning and my shining balloon of reading happiness deflated as surely as if Lucy Maud had stuck a pin in it.
For the record, I’m not sorry to have read either one of them—so for me, endings matter, but they’re not everything.
5. I do have time to read the Bible every day
If the pandemic had hit in 2010 instead of 2020, I would have had a great deal more trouble with this one (as I have had for 25 years). But partly because I now have older, more self-sufficient kids, I was able to commit to reading my Bible every day, and then some (Scripture writing, devotional reading, etc.). Tackling a heavy Bible reading plan—reading the whole Bible in nine months—was doable this year, and I took advantage of it. The payoff was big in terms of developing a daily habit and increasing my spiritual growth and closeness with God.
Year Two of the pandemic promises to be a shorter one, thank goodness. At some point in the not-too-distant future our reading time will face competition from large family gatherings, concerts, sports events, graduations, weddings, vacations, parties, church activities, restaurants, museums, school events, and so much more of what was, until recently, normal life.
When that happens, will I need Agatha as much as I did I 2020? Maybe.
Will I continue to read my shelves? Yes, I will.
Will I look back with fondness on the positive side of reading during a pandemic? Absolutely.
* * * * * * *
Many books I read didn’t fit neatly into one of the above categories, but since readers dearly love to look at lists of good books, I’m going to include a few more notable titles below.
- Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri—a beautifully written, funny, and heart-grabbing memoir, classified as “children’s/YA,” but it’s really not
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—a fun reread for me
- Mexican Gothic—do you like fantastically strange, bizarrely unsettling, and extremely weird fiction? Here you go. (If you read this one, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
- Lamplighter books—these are my “palate cleansers” (after off-the-wall books like Mexican Gothic)—Christian fiction for children and adults, most published in the 1800s.
- Twice Freed, and other books by Christian writer Patricia St. John
- Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett—a companion to A Christmas Carol, and much better than I expected
- Christmas at Fairacre—two Miss Read novellas, sweet and gentle comfort reads
And some nonfiction:
- The Elephant in the Room—memoir by a journalist needing to lose half his body weight
- (A)Typical Woman by Abigail Dodds—reminded me of the refreshing, straight-talking Christian wisdom of Elisabeth Elliot
- The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin—inspiring, thoughtful, and courageous
And from that unscientific Facebook poll I mentioned earlier, here are a few other authors/books that people read for comfort in 2020:
- Jan Karon’s Mitford series
- Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery
- Maeve Binchy
- Rosamunde Pilcher
- Fannie Flagg
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Jane Austen
- Corrie ten Boom
- Louis L’Amour
- Bill Bryson—humorous nonfiction: travel and many other topics
- Chronicles of Narnia and other C.S. Lewis books
- Elizabeth Goudge’s historical fiction
- James Herriot books
- David Baldacci
- The Green Ember series
- Susan Branch and other cookbook authors
- Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic series
- Kristin Kimball
- The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith