What to Read During a Lockdown

Victorians have recently experienced a third COVID 19 lockdown. The same restrictions were applied to residents of Melbourne as those living in remote rural locations. Some sections of the media described the state government’s actions as ‘lockdown lunacy.’ Health officials have been criticised for advocating such extreme measures despite the risk being minimal and improvements to contact tracing helping containment.

During times of crisis, people find themselves faced with lifestyle changes which are often unfamiliar and uncomfortable. The experience of being in lockdown has been a challenge for many people as follows.

1. The disruption to our normal life

We find security in our daily routines. Being told what you can and cannot do can be disorientating and disquieting.

2. The loss of personal freedom

It is personally satisfying to be able to prioritise what we want to do with our time. Having our choices restricted can make us feel we no longer have control over our lives.

3. The restrictions placed on our personal preferences

Our preferences shape our character. They reflect what is important to us. Being told where we can go and who we can meet undermines our autonomy and damages our self-worth.

4. The lack of face-to-face contact

We are social beings. We need one another. Positive relationships contribute strength and stability to our lives. They keep us safe during difficult and stressful times. Being denied access to those we love, those we value, is unjust and inexcusable.

5. The reduced opportunities for physical activity

Our mental health is linked to how we feel about ourselves. People who use physical activity to keep in shape and maintain a positive outlook need to be able to access venues that offer this opportunity.

6. The inevitable feelings of restlessness and boredom

Living a productive life is a goal many people aspire to. When our life is put on hold it can be difficult to find worthwhile things to do. Being able to sustain a sense of purpose is a proven way to fend off feelings of restlessness and boredom.

7. The growing sense of despair

Despair is the feeling we have when there seems to be no way out of our current circumstances. When we feel robbed of the life we have known, it is easy to feel disillusioned and want to give up.

Studies have found that people read more during lockdown. Many people found solace in reading. However, there were a minority who found they could not maintain their concentration. Some people looked for safety in their reading, often re-reading books they enjoyed in the past while others wanted to explore new genres.

Readers agree that narrative is crucial. Stories are more easily absorbed than abstract ideas. So it is important, especially during lockdown, that the narrative entertains, portrays beauty, addresses life’s challenges, values courage, and inspires hope.

The following books made my lockdown a little easier to endure.

  • ‘Miss Benson’s Beetle’ – Rachel Joyce
  • ‘A Time for Mercy’ – John Grisham
  • ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ – Gail Honeyman
  • ‘Trust’ – Chris Hammer
  • ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ – Delia Owens
  • ‘Infinite Splendours’ – Sofie Laguna
  • ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow is considered the quintessential lockdown read and is the book we will look at in more detail.

It is the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution is judged by a Bolshevik court to be an unrepentant aristocrat. He is stripped of his wealth and sentenced to a life of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.

Although the circumstances of house arrest may differ to that of a lockdown, there are still many things the Count can teach us about surviving the loss of freedom.

1. The Count accepts his reduced circumstances

The Count recalled how on the first night of his house arrest, in the spirit of his godfather’s old maxim, he had committed himself to mastering his circumstances.”

Following the hearing, the Count has most of his possessions confiscated and is moved from his luxurious suite on the third floor to a tiny attic room on the sixth floor of the Metropol. The Count has to say farewell to many of his dearest possessions, but he does keep the Grand Duke’s desk with its gilded accents, leather top and secret compartment, two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a portrait of his sister, Helena. The value of these items is in the memories they hold rather than their practical use.

The Count accepts his reduced circumstances. The alternative is not an option. To be consumed by bitterness and anger would only lead to his destruction. As he says,

“But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.”

2. The Count reconstructs his view of time

“For his part, the Count had opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed.”

From a young age the Count was open and receptive to what life offered. He was not obsessed with success nor driven to achieve. Following his sentence to a life of confinement he realises that time and its passing will take on new meaning. Time is his servant, not his master. He has an abundance of time. Time to read, to mingle with visitors to the Metropol, to befriend the staff, to accept new responsibilities, to live purposefully.

3. The Count embraces a sense of adventure

“For standing at the edge of his table was the young girl with the penchant for yellow – studying him with that unapologetic interest peculiar to children and dogs.”

The Count experienced moments of despondency. His situation was untenable.

He befriends a young girl named Nina who is precocious, stubborn, and most importantly, adventurous. She becomes an essential player in his mental recovery.

Nina has acquired a passkey which gives her access to various rooms and passageways not accessible to the public. Their excursions include exploring the boiler room, checking out the storage facility that houses the silverware, and spying from the balcony of the ballroom.

4. The Count develops an appreciation for the simple things

“He figured a cup of coffee would hit the spot… coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night.”

The Count turns the handle round and round. When he opens the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contains is transformed by the aroma of freshly ground coffee. 

It is an important reminder that life’s true joys are the simplest.

5. The Count gains a clearer understanding of what matters most

“For what matters in life in not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

As the Count reflects on life, he recognizes that it is not about recognition or the rewards; it is having the courage to persevere and remain generous of heart. There is virtue in embracing uncertainty, not knowing whether our best efforts will be applauded.

The Count spent thirty-two years under house arrest. He knew that to step outside the Metropol was to risk being shot. When his ‘adopted’ daughter Sofia falls and splits her head open the Count gently takes her in his arms, rushes down the stairs, bursts through the main entrance, calls a taxi and hastens to give instructions to head for the nearest hospital. Only then does he pause to consider the implications of his actions.

6. The Count remembers those who have gone before

“The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought in wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So, by their efforts, however humble, they have earned a measure of our gratitude and respect.”

The Bolsheviks, a revolutionary socialist political party which came to power during the Russian Revolution of 1917, were determined to change the course of history by dismantling the past. They crushed the aristocracy in Russia and destroyed many fine buildings including churches.

The Count is grateful for his upbringing. He believes it is important to honour previous generations and celebrate their achievements.

7. The Count strives to maintain ‘peace of mind’

“With so little to do and all the time in the world to do it, the Count’s peace of mind continued to be threatened by a sense of ennui — that dreaded mire of the human emotions.”

The Count must accept the limitations of his situation. He unconsciously adopts a set routine. He eats his breakfast at an appointed hour. He sips his coffee and nibbles his biscuits without interruption. He reads in a particular chair tilted at a particular angle.

The Count experiences moments of depression, due in part to the sameness of his life. It is his interaction with others that brings ‘peace of mind.’

The Count cultivates a friendship with Abram, the handyman, who has a love of bees. They sample honey from the hive and identify where the bees have been feeding by the distinct flavour.

It is Abram who finds the Count on the hotel’s roof with one foot on the parapet’s edge, contemplating ending it all.

It was the tenth anniversary of his sister, Helena’s death. The Count felt personally responsible even though she died of scarlet fever. His actions at the time set in motion a series of events that were detrimental to his sister. He felt the burden of guilt for his impulsive behaviour and for not being there to hold her hand when she died.

It is Abram’s calm manner and timely words that rescues the Count. He talks about his bees, knowing the Count is interested in this subject, thus diverting his thoughts from his intended objective, and saving his life.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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