Escaping the pandemic

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -

IT WASN’T by accident that The Mermaid of Black Conch swam her way into readers’ hearts during this pandemic. The Peepal Tree Press publication written by Monique Roffey garnered international fame and became one of the most successful Caribbean books of the pandemic year because it provided romance and an exotic escape from covid19 worries.

The Mermaid of Black Conch and Fortune by Amanda Smyth topped my list of Caribbean fiction this year. Fortune offered historical fiction, an escape to the past, romance and history with an exciting story about the rise of the oil industry and the demise of the cocoa industry, altogether the perfect pandemic read.

Clearly, I see a pattern in the 84 books I read in the last 16 months. I read nature books like Beaks, Bones and Bird Songs by Roger Legerer, The Peregrine, a classic in nature writing, by JA Baker and The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog by Rick McIntyre.

I read Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, by Jeremy Brown and ten biographies or autobiographies, from Unsinkable about the 1950s movie star Debbie Reynolds to Fossil Men, the story of the early physical anthropologists by Kermit Pattison. I also read Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W Blight and Barack Obama’s autobiography.

Craving some new experiences, I read this year’s Booker Prize-winning novel, At Night All Blood Is Black, by David Diop and Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri. I got hooked on the Dr Siri Paiboun mystery series about a Laotian doctor who is forced to be the government’s coroner in the 1970s.

I craved good company, nature, an escape to the past, new experiences and a satisfying series during the pandemic. Using books as a means to face the pandemic has not been unusual for many people.

Last year at this time, editors at The Washington Post wrote, “If 2020 was a tidal wave that left us adrift in an ocean of uncertainty, books became our islands, providing safe harbor for our exhausted psyches.”

Stephanie Merry and Steven Johnson of The Washington Post wrote on September 2, 2020, that people were reading about dystopias, social justice and steamy romance.

It seemed readers wanted to imagine a worse future than what we were experiencing. They wanted a cause to live for like Black Lives Matter or they wanted to imagine that romantic relationship beyond their grasp.

With data collected from publishers, libraries, associations, data firms and readers on the newspaper’s website, The Washington Post examined reading trends in the spring and summer of 2020.

“Together, these literary choices mirror our collective mood,” wrote Merry and Johnson.

Readers chose modern classics in dystopian literature like Albert Camus’s The Plague and historical fiction like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Series offered comfort and familiarity. Series take the guesswork out of finding the next gratifying read.

Libraries in the US reported an increased interest in e-books and audiobooks. It’s comforting to know that readers could access library e-books during lockdowns.

Every library polled in newspaper stories noticed an increased demand for books about race as the Black Lives Matter protests heated up. Even at home, people wanted to feel like they could support a cause – or at least understand a little more about it.

The Washington Post surveys noted a rise in children’s activity books and nature books for children.

Sales in romance books were said to be steadily declining since 2012, but they saw a boost a year ago in March as many readers went into quarantine.

“Sales of romantic comedy in print books rose a massive 188 per cent,” wrote The Washington Post.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez sparked a new interest in magical realism. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain allowed readers to survive other pandemics. My must-read list includes Mario Bellatin’s dystopian novel Beauty Salon, about a pandemic that kills only men. Margaret Attwood’s dystopian Madd Adam trilogy made lists of popular pandemic literature as well.

Books buoy our spirit and offer a safe escape from this pandemic. Our local bookstores offer a wide selection of Caribbean literature that makes perfect pandemic reading. New books are arriving from Peepal Tree Press, Hodder, UWI Press and other publishers. I visited Paper Based in the Normandie Hotel last week and felt encouraged with all the new Caribbean literature including poetry, biographies and dystopia. In this pandemic, books are like lifeboats waiting to rescue us.


"Escaping the pandemic"

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