Ask an expert: how literature and audiobooks can offer a distraction during the coronavirus outbreak

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UCLan’s Dr Theresa Saxon offers her opinion on which authors and books are a must read while people are spending more time at home due to COVID-19

For some people, reading is a vital part of their bedtime routine, others take the opportunity to escape into a different world while on the daily commute while some manage to read once a year when on holiday.

Sales of books and audiobooks have risen during the Coronavirus outbreak, with members of the public looking for an escape from the rising death toll coming from television and radio broadcasts.

The University of Central Lancashire’s (UCLan) Dr Theresa Saxon, who specialises in 18th and 19th Century literary and theatre cultures, has given her insight into which books, authors and audiobooks people should be reading and listening.

COVID-19 is going to influence plots in the future – but what’s fascinating is how stories already published fit the world we live in now.

People have more time on their hands at present so what five classic books would you recommend for everyone to read and why?

The lockdown has been extended and some of us may now be furloughed, or unable to work for a variety of reasons, or working and needing a distraction. And books are the best distraction ever. Reading, or listening to a book, these are great ways to keep your big brain muscle active and strong. In our strange world, I suggest you go for the very short, or the very long. Short is digestible and you can enjoy it then move on. Long requires slow digestion over time, but good authors will keep you on track with their compelling plots and characters. For the very short, you could follow Patrick Stewart as he reads one of Williams Shakespeare’s sonnets every day – there are 154 of them! For the very long, I would go classic, Victorian novelist. Try Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities from 1859, set around the fires of the French Revolution, or Wilkie Collins, a maestro of crime and sensation – you could go with The Woman in White also from 1859, adapted for TV last year – the book is WAY better, or The Moonstone, a later novel from 1868. Honestly, if you are a reader of crime fiction, try any Wilkie Collins. Best news too, you can download Shakespeare, Dickens and Collins for free from the amazing Project Gutenberg site - and while you are there, have a browse through their catalogue of over 60,000, published before 1924.

With the closure of libraries, do you think more people will move to Kindles and audio books?

Kindles and audiobooks provide a practical solution for the times in which we live – we don’t want to overwhelm postal services with delivery of physical books, as we’re keen to support the need to focus on essential deliveries, of food parcels and medical goods. So, downloading as either kindle or audio is sensible. It might not feel the same as holding a book but it’s easily accessible. Audiobooks are already incredibly popular, and the act of listening, whether alongside or instead of the act of reading, can be very rewarding – Treasure Island narrated by Philip Glenister and Catherine Tate is a delightful experience! Stephen Fry’s reading of anything is a must-listen – but I recommend Sherlock Holmes particularly. If you were compelled by the TV adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, then you could always go back to the beginning, and listen to the audiobook, including wonderful Elizbeth Moss as one of its narrators.

Do you expert authors to draw on this unprecedented situation for future novels? Do you expect would-be authors will utilise this time to start writing their first book?

COVID-19 is going to influence plots in the future – but what’s fascinating is how stories already published fit the world we live in now. Sales of dystopian fiction in the UK apparently increased as soon as we headed into lockdown, and many media outlets published their top five reads, almost straightaway! Most popular, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, set in a world where books are banned, and of course Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale appear in many. Literature is of paramount importance in ensuring that we record not only the facts of a situation, but how it makes us feel. And we can relate feelings in many ways through fiction, sharing emotional sensations, grief and love and loneliness and joy and rage, and in doing so, keep the spirits of humans vital and alive.

Rachel Atkinson | 01 May 2020