What to Read While Hunkering Down at Home

IShirley MacLaine “hunkering down” (?) with T.S. Eliot

“I don’t mind the cold. It’s the light I miss.”

I say that every year. I have a partial solution: you feel happier if you use twice as much electricity, i.e., turning on every lamp in the house and using the brightest light bulbs you can find. (And that’s why we need wind energy: 36 percent of ours is powered by wind turbines.)

We had our first snow last week, and the nights are getting darker earlier. We have been “hunkering down” at home (as Dr. Fauci and other infectious disease experts suggest) and getting a lot of reading done (which is my interpretation of “hunkering down”).

If you’re tired of hunkering–and there has certainly been a lot of it this year–I know two remarkable books to make the time go faster. This is also a perfect way to catch up on my book entries, which have been fewer lately.

1 Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, by Michiko Kakutani. This entertaining book would make a great Christmas gift, or in this case, a hunkering-down gift for bibliophiles. You may remember Kakutani as a daily book critic at The New York Times, whose gracefully-written, incisive, tough reviews could make or break a book. She shows a softer side of herself in these enthusiastic short essays about the books she loves. You will madly write down all the books you want to read e or reread.

And so I cannot wait to read Saul Bellow (the only book I’ve read by him was the The Dean’s December, and I dismissed him on the basis of that), the historian Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America ( he wote “that images were supplanting ideals [and] the idea of ‘credibility’ was replacing the idea of truth”), Underworld by the great Don De Lillo, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, and so many more.

2 The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. This irresistible meta-Victorian novel is a classic, which I did not realize it when I first read it after seeing the movie with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Perhaps I did not recognize its perfection because I read so much in those days that great books blended into each other. One day it was Trollope, the next Elizabeth Bowen, the next Caesar’s Commentaries, and I sometimes blundered when I came upon excellent new books that would prove to be classics. It takes time and comparison to know.

Fowles’s imitation of a Victorian novel centers on Charles, a 32-year-old gentleman, amateur geologist, and Darwinist who is engaged to marry a merchant’s daughter, Ernestina, who is as witty as a character in a George Meredith novel. Unfortunately, Charles begins to doubt his decision when he falls for a mysterious red-haired woman, Sarah Woodruff, who walks along the beaches and cliffs of Lyme every day. . Reputed to have been engaged to–and sexually active with–a French officer who deserted her, Sarah is bolder than women of Charles’s class. And she actively pursues him.

But there is so much more than plot, character, and sex to this novel. Fowles interweaves details about Victorian life and history into the narrative, sometimes in fascinating footnotes, other times in interruptions by an omniscient narrator who comments on the action and sometimes offers alternate versions of an incident.

As a Victorian novel, it is simply stunning. As twentieth-century fiction, it is doubly brilliant. Even if you do not care for meta-fiction, this book will ensnare you and keep you reading. Loved it!