The Art of Reading

The Art of Reading

I n the second installment of our series For the Love of Art, which began with philosopher Alain de Botton exploring the idea of art as therapy, specialists from the Sotheby's Books department reveal how literature can soothe, comfort and inspire us during difficult times, and what they're reading during lockdown. From sci-fi classics and epic biographies to timely new releases and meditations on nature, scroll down to see their recommendations.

Dr. Gabriel Heaton – London

With lock-down imminent, I panic-bought a copy of Roger Deakin’s Wildwood (2007) before the bookshops closed. Wildwood would be an remarkable read at any time but it seems particularly apposite at the present time, when so many of us are taking solace from nature as the beauty and hope of springtime surrounds us.

The book is an exploration of woodland, trees, and timber; how we have shaped trees and trees have shaped us. Deakin understood a thing or two about social distancing: the book opens with diary entries from a summer spent sleeping alone out in woodland near his Suffolk home, and he includes a memorable chapter about bivouacking under a rookery to try to understand the birds’ conversation. But he also shows that if you stop to pay attention to the breadth of life around you, then solitude does not have to mean loneliness.

He was hardly a hermit, however: he writes beautifully about the use of wood in contemporary art, drawing on time spent with artist friends including David Nash and John Wolseley, and several chapters are given over to a rambunctious tour of Kazakhstan in search of the original domesticated apple. Wildwood is full of insight into perhaps the most majestic forms of life found on our planet, but it is also a portrait of a man who would have known how to sustain himself during quarantine, and known how to celebrate when we get to the other side.

Selby Keiffer – New York

I like big books (and I cannot lie). So my reading since last summer has consisted largely of the first four volumes of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, alternating with the hard-boiled noir novels collected in the recent Everyman omnibus editions of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet and Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy.

After finishing all of Ellroy’s post-apprentice novels, I moved on to the second of his appallingly frank memoirs, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010). The book is principally concerned with Ellroy’s marriage and divorce to Helen Knode and with the women who replaced her in his obsession—one of whom is the dedicatee and, Ellroy writes, “God’s greatest gift to me.” And yet recent profiles reveal that Ellroy—who is at least as complicated and fascinating a character as Caro makes LBJ—currently lives in close proximity to Knode, who seems to act as his de facto caretaker and link to the rest of the world.

I felt compelled to read one of Knode’s own mysteries: would there be clues to her relationship with Ellroy? Or a hint at why she would assay a genre in which he is a past master? So far, no. But Wildcat Play, about a murder on a California oil rig, is an easy, entertaining read, plus I found a remaindered copy on Amazon for four bucks. I have ordered a copy of her first novel, The Ticket Out – but partly because it is dedicated to Ellroy.

Highlights from English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations Online

Paige Thompson – London

I’ve spent the first weeks of isolation trying to read exclusively female authors. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez is a fascinating and infuriating dive into data bias. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was recommended to me by multiple friends and I am already loving being transported to the Marshlands in North Carolina. I loved Sally Rooney’s Normal People last year and devoured it in one sitting so I cannot wait to return to her writing again in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends.

Dr Kalika Sands – New York

The Virgin in the Garden is the first title in A.S. Byatt’s ‘Frederica Quartet’, which I’ve wanted to re-read for ages, and it would seem there is, in fact, no time like the present. The novel is set in the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, and is laced with literary references that thread a way back to the reign of Elizabeth I. Despite such a regal framework, the novel centres on the relatively average Potter family – a schoolteacher and his wife and children – who live in Yorkshire.

Byatt is such a skilled storyteller, she is able to illuminate the everyday, and make the reader care deeply about the narrative’s protagonist, Frederica Potter, a clever – often difficult teenager – who is eager to shed adolescence, and be taken seriously as an adult. This book, and the three that follow it, are about ordinary, fantastically flawed people who, in one manner or another, love stories. Just my kind of people, really.

Dr Philip W. Errington – London

Confinement and isolation is, of course, common in literature. One of my favourites is The Bird of Dawning by John Masefield. This novel by the then Poet Laureate tells of the remnants of a ship’s crew confined to a small lifeboat in the open sea with little food and practically no water.

As the agony of confinement continues, discipline starts to fail and the sea begins to turn nasty… Punch reviewed the book as ‘the finest sea-yarn ever penned’ and the Evening News as ‘a novel which is bound to rank… as one of the great and stirring sea-stories in the English language’. Move over Conrad!

Ella Hall – New York

I’ve been making my way through an assortment of new works, including Jenny Odell’s timely How To Do Nothing, Jenny Offill’s Weather, and Holly Jackson’s American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation. Spending so much time in my small Brooklyn apartment over the last few weeks has also prompted me to revisit an old favourite: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. A particular blend of fiction and essay, Hardwick’s 1979 novel is a patchwork of one woman’s memories and experiences “alone here in New York...”. The fragmentary form mimics the slippery experience of these stay-at-home days, as our collective sense of time and normalcy is upended.

Charlotte Miller – London

John Haywood's Northmen: the Viking Saga 793-1241 is a survey of the extraordinary reach of the Scandinavians we call “Vikings”, from the sack of Lindisfarne to the New World via Byzantium and Greenland, full of random and fascinating facts about early modern history that make perfect sense in a context we rarely think about.

It had never occurred to me that the names Oleg, Olga and Igor had Swedish roots. The Vikings flourished because of their combination of violence and commerce that took them across the known world and beyond, founding settlements and civilisations which are still visible to the modern world.

Cassandra Hatton – New York

1. Dune by Frank Herbert. This is one of my favourite books of all time, and I have read it along with the other books in the series at least seven times! Considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the science fiction genre (and the world's best-selling science fiction novel), it inspired the 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch, starring Kyle Maclaughlin, Sean Young, and Sting amongst others, and a new film adaptation, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothée Chalamet, is set to be released in December of 2020 . But be sure to read the book before seeing the movie!

2. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton. Hilarious, inspirational and, at times, heartbreaking, the book consists of stories told by Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman to his drumming partner Ralph Leighton. This is another one of my favourite books of all time, and I am in good company – Bill Gates, Tim Ferris, Seamus Blackley and many others cite Feynman and his work as a major inspiration.

3. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is one of the funniest books ever written, though the back story is tragic. Toole took his own life at the age of 31, after years of his work being rejected by publishers. His mother found a carbon copy of the manuscript to A Confederacy of Dunces in his house after his death, and doggedly worked to try and get it published. She repeatedly contacted Walker Percy, who eventually relented and worked to get the book published. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, eleven years after Toole's death.

4. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. This is a book you can't put down. I brought this to read on a week-long trip to Martinique, and I couldn't tell you a thing about the island – my nose was in the book the entire time! The novel, published in 2003 and purportedly inspired by real-live events in the author's life, tells the tale of a man who escapes a maximum security prison in Australia and flees to India. It is one of the most incredible, heartbreaking, wild adventure stories I have ever read. A film adaptation was originally planned in 2006, with Johnny Depp set to star in the lead role, and later linked as producer, but the project never came to fruition.

Peter Selley – London

My lockdown reading recommendations include Shoshana Zuboff’s long-gestated The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a penetrating and exhaustively researched demonstration of how the bulk of our lived experience is now purely raw data expropriated as behavioural data for the use of the latest incarnation of capitalism, and Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep, the thriller writer’s latest back-to-the-future dystopian novel where our technological age has evaporated without trace after one of a number of apocalyptic scenarios has occurred (one being a world pandemic).

Albert Camus’s La Peste is of course, perhaps the most brilliant novel ever written about human endurance and integrity in the face of a deadly pestilence (whether taken literally or metaphorically as an allegory of fascist invasion and oppression). Elias Canetti’s The Human Province is a superb set of aphoristic, almost Nietzschean writings composed over 30 years of deep existentialist reflection, focusing ultimately on the search to overcome the finality of death.

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the celebrated German writer’s distillation of the sickness of Europe is played out in the rarified atmosphere of intellectual discussion set within the confines of a sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps, and finally, W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – an indefinable and unique blend of autobiography, fiction and history, recording a journey on foot along the coast of East Anglia, ruminating on the human condition and the remnants of shattered worlds

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