Thank goodness for non-fiction books while we're on lockdown

It’s easy to feel imprisoned under lockdown, so thank goodness for memoirs that transport us into the lives of others with tales as fantastical as any novel, DOMINIC SANDBROOK on the proof that life really is stranger (and more magical) than fiction

With so many of us now prisoners in our own homes, trapped inside the same four walls and sick of the same old view from the same old windows, it’s tempting to brood about everything we’re missing.

Other people, obviously: not just friends and family but colleagues, acquaintances, even strangers. Other places: long country walks and hillside hikes, sparkling seas and rolling meadows.

The thrill of adventure, the excitement of discovery, the pleasures of the exotic; the roar of the crowd, the buzz of the city, the silence of the mountaintop . . . never did we know how much we valued them, until they were taken away.

There is good news, though. Our finest minds have invented a device that allows you to experience all these things from the comfort of your living room. It is, of course, the book. According to surveys, the average Briton reads for about five hours a week, which works out as less than an hour a day. About half of that is fiction, which means that most of us read barely two hours’ worth of non-fiction a week.

For some reason, perhaps because they had inept teachers at school, or because they spend too much time reading reviews in the Guardian, many people dismiss non-fiction as earnest and worthy — which is to say, soul-sappingly dull.

And yes, some of it is, especially the preachy, hand-wringing books hectoring you about the evils of the Western world. But thousands of non-fiction books aren’t like that at all. Turn the pages, and you meet all kinds of weird and wonderful people. One moment you’re wandering through an extraordinary new landscape; the next, you are rethinking assumptions you’ve cherished for years. Such is the power of the written word.

If you doubt it, try dipping into something that seems perfectly suited to our current troubles: the great diary of the 17th-century civil servant Samuel Pepys, one of the most absorbing and addictive books I have ever read. Pepys kept his diary for almost ten years, charting the first decade of the Restoration. You get a sense of the tone from the early scene when Charles II returns across the Channel from exile in 1660.

Samuel Pepys kept his diary for almost ten years, charting the first decade of the Restoration

On Pepys’s boat are not just various Royalist bigwigs but Charles’s dog, which disgraces itself by soiling the deck. This ‘made us laugh’, Pepys notes, before adding wisely that it made ‘me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are’. Many of Pepys’s beliefs would strike modern readers as very odd, yet often he seems just like us. He worries about his health, drinks too much and quarrels with his wife Elizabeth.

Like us, he lived through a terrifying public health crisis. In 1665, the Great Plague came to London, killing an estimated 100,000 people — a quarter of the city’s entire population.

Many people fled the city, which rapidly became deserted. ‘Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people,’ Pepys wrote, noting that ‘two shops in three, if not more’ were ‘generally shut up’.

But he came through it. Working hard at the Admiralty after others had fled, he made more money than ever. ‘I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much),’ he wrote cheerfully, ‘as I have done this plague time.’

Quite apart from its historical delights, Pepys’s diary, like so much of the best non-fiction, takes you out of yourself, introducing you to people and places that have long since vanished. After reading Pepys, you don’t need a time machine. You’ve been there.

But you don’t need to go back to Restoration England to find addictive stories. Recently, I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s extraordinary compilations of ordinary people’s diaries from the 1940s, We Are At War and Our Hidden Lives.

After only a few sentences, you’re plunged right back into the sights and smells, the hopes and fears of Churchill’s Britain: the ration books and gas masks, the tins of Spam and air raid sirens.

Kenneth Williams in ‘Round the Horne’ in 1968. Williams’s diaries are often outrageously funny, not least for his astounding rudeness to the great British public

Then there are the great comic diarists of recent decades. If you enjoy reading about other people’s misery, then the Carry On actor Kenneth Williams’s diaries are often outrageously funny, not least for his astounding rudeness to the great British public (‘morons’).

I also have a soft spot for novelist Kingsley Amis’s barbed Memoirs, which led him to fall out with many of his old friends. It’s hard to pick a favourite moment, though his father’s warnings of the dangers of masturbation come pretty close.

I love his account of his rival Anthony Burgess, who told Amis he was on the lookout for a sword-stick. ‘If ever menaced by ruffians,’ Burgess said, he planned to unsheathe it while shouting: ‘F*** off, I’ve got cancer!’ This, he said confidently, would deter any muggers.

As this might suggest, the best non-fiction is never dry. The best memoirs are as finely wrought and poignantly balanced as any novel.

Kingsley Amis’s barbed Memoirs led him to fall out with many of his old friends

One of my favourite writers, for example, is V.S. Pritchett, a peerless craftsman of short stories. But Pritchett also wrote an exquisite memoir, A Cab At The Door.

Chronicling his shabby-genteel childhood before World War I, it has some outstandingly funny set-pieces about his bizarre relatives, such as Great Uncle Arthur, who ‘looked very yellow’, kept nails between his teeth and had a ‘horrible long black beard like a crinkled mat of pubic hair’.

Another of my favourite memoirists is Russian exile Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his blackly comic and controversial novel Lolita. But Nabokov also produced one of the most beautiful autobiographies ever written, Speak, Memory, which brilliantly evokes the lost world of pre-revolution St Petersburg.

His mother, his brother, his English governesses, his eccentric drawing teachers; for a brief, shining moment, they all come back to life. Because Nabokov’s memoir uses many of the same themes and devices as his novels, it makes you think about the difference between fact and fiction. Of course, booksellers rigidly divide their stock into fiction and non-fiction, but the reality is more complicated.

As a historian of the 20th century, I’m fascinated by the books of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, such as The Unwomanly Face Of War, Chernobyl Prayer and Secondhand Time, even though they’re often terribly harrowing.

A Soviet soldier stands atop an armored personnel carrier tank during the abortive coup in Moscow in August 1991

Told in dramatic monologues, they capture the Soviet experience from World War II to the fall of Communism. They’re based on interviews with ordinary people, so they’re definitely not fiction.

But Alexievich’s techniques — her sense of balance and contrast, her changes of focus, her juxtaposition of different characters, even her use of little cliff-hangers to keep you reading — are those of the finest novelist. The only difference is that her raw materials are drawn from real life.

When you contemplate the vast range of non-fiction, and the limitless possibilities of our experience of the world, it’s tempting to wonder why novelists bother making things up. Often apparently simple, mundane things — the kind of things you might never think of as the stuff of literature — can make for memorable books.

On the surface, Helen Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir H Is For Hawk is simply a book about taming a wild bird. But it’s also a book about loss and grief, humanity and nature — the kind of book you never forget.

Author Helen Macdonald and Stella the goshawk of PBS’s ‘H is for Hawk: A New Chapter’ pose for a portrait during the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour

James Rebanks with his sheepdog on his farm in Penrith, in April 2015, in Cumbria, England Lake District

Who, meanwhile, could have predicted that Lake District sheep farming, as recounted in James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, would have such an appeal to thousands of readers moved by his tales of life and death, the soil and the seasons?

Then there are those books which sound entirely unappealing on the surface, but stay with you for ever. Some years ago, browsing idly in an airport bookshop, I picked up a book called Friday Night Lights, about a high-school American football team in impoverished West Texas.

A New York journalist, H.G. Bissinger moved his family to Texas and spent the 1988 season with the Permian High School team. As ideas go, it sounded mad. And since I don’t follow American football, I don’t know why I bothered flicking through it.

But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. As weird and foreign as Texas high-school football seemed, I learned more about ordinary Americans’ dreams and anxieties from that book than from a thousand novels about whining New Yorkers.

Armchair travel, you might call it. And in truth, even before coronavirus compelled me to spend more time with my towering pile of unread books, I was already doing a lot of armchair travelling. In my mid-40s, I am increasingly unlikely to walk from the Hook of Holland to the gates of Constantinople. Never mind.

Patrick Leigh Fermor did it in the early 1930s, and wrote about it in his wonderful books A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water. And in truth, I’ve had much more fun reading about his encounters with Austrian counts and Hungarian peasants than I would have done trudging along some German motorway.

The great wilderness of Patagonia? I’d love to see it, but since the lockdown means I can’t, Bruce Chatwin’s gloriously offbeat In Patagonia will have to do.

Then there’s my favourite travel book of all, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, a journey through what was then Yugoslavia just before World War II.

It’s the War And Peace of non-fiction, a 1,100-page behemoth, crammed with weird characters, centuries-old grudges, historical ghosts and as many mosaics, minarets, beards and blood feuds as you could possibly want. And once you start reading it, you won’t mind being stuck at home, because modern life seems so pallid by comparison.

But we don’t just read to learn about the outside world. We also learn about ourselves, which is why so many people adored Bill Bryson’s gentle, good-humoured Notes From A Small Island.

Cartoon of Bill Bryson drinking beer in a classic British pub

My friend Anna is obsessed with Kate Fox’s Watching The English, which explains, among other things, why we talk about the weather, why we love apologising, why we are addicted to DIY and why the difference between ‘tea’ and ‘dinner’ matters so much.

It always strikes me as bizarre that some people think of reading as a solitary, even lonely, activity. You’re never alone with a book.

For one thing, the writer is with you. So are the characters you meet along your literary journey. Tony Benn once said he didn’t rate reading (‘What moves me? It isn’t bloody books. I hardly ever read them’) because you could learn more from listening to ordinary people — by which he meant people who agreed with him.

This has always struck me as foolish, and says a great deal about the poverty of his imagination. Who, after all, could fail to learn from George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, or Robert Graves’s Good-Bye To All That, or Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa, or even Sir Ian Kershaw’s titanic biography of Adolf Hitler? After all, only a fool thinks he knows everything. You’ll learn more from a book than from listening to people like yourself.

Dancers at the Windmill Theatre in London, practice a routine wearing gas masks and hard-hats with their costumes

The point of reading is that you find yourself in situations, and alongside people, completely removed from your everyday experience. A good non-fiction book challenges the way you think and feel.

Take one of the bestselling books of all time, the diary of Anne Frank. I’m ashamed to say I had never read it until a few months ago. But now I think about it all the time, reflecting on the unfulfilled hopes and broken dreams of a teenage girl who died decades before I was born, and on the hatreds and prejudices that lurk within us all.

A couple of weeks ago I read another book that changed the way I thought: war reporter Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, a searing account of what war does to women, telling the stories of rape survivors from Nazi Germany to Syria. For too long they’ve been airbrushed out of history, but not any more.

I ought to end with a couple of jollier suggestions to raise a smile in these grim times. As a boy I cried with laughter at the scene in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, when he tries to transport some dementedly over-ripe cheese from Liverpool to London, to the horror of everybody he meets. It was first published in 1889, but it hasn’t aged a bit.

And a few years ago, my wife threatened to banish me from the house for allegedly ‘howling’ at the autobiography of one of Britain’s most celebrated TV presenters. I started laughing at the foreword, and never stopped.

The book in question was I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan. That counts as non-fiction, doesn’t it? 

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