Skip to content

Reading during the pandemic

During the period of confinement, starting with the declaration of the state of emergency on 14 March 2020, I worked from home, cooking more than usual, and reading more than usual. The latter partly because I had to stay at home except to buy food and other necessities until early May (at that point daily bicycle rides became possible as well), and partly because there was no football on TV at the weekends, an activity on which I usually spend several hours Saturday and Sunday. We are no longer confined, but there are still many restrictions and while our office re-opened in September 2020, working at home is still the default option for many, and the possibility of new restrictions is always there, as successive waves of the pandemic have engulfed Spain during 2021. In any event, reading is a good thing, so pandemic or not, I will continue to add books to this list.

So, this is what I have been reading during and after the confinement. I am fortunate to be able to read most of the books below in the original language, but I have provided links to the English translations on Amazon where appropriate. I have divided the post into fiction and non-fiction, even if in some cases the distinction is not 100% clear.


Johannes V. Jensen: Kongens Fald (The Fall of the King) (1901). A fantastic historical novel by the Danish Nobel Prize winner (1944), taking place in 16th century Denmark, with the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath as one of the central events. It was elected as the most significant Danish novel of the 20th century in 1999 by two leading Danish newspapers. Available in English at Amazon.

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961). Science fiction is not among my preferred genres, but this book has been on my “to read” list for several years, and last year I picked up a new edition during a trip to Poland. It was interesting to read a serious novel in my native Polish, and it was hard to put it down. The richness of the novel lies in the psychological aspects of the main characters, rather than in the technological fantasies that are the focus of much other science fiction. The book is almost psychadelic. Available in English at Amazon.

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Another classic, meaning a book that has been on my shelf for a long time but which I never got around to reading–until now. And what a book it is! The edition I have is from Oxford’s Word Classics, and there is a 40-page introduction which I frankly wish had been edited down to 10 pages. But once I got into the novel itself, I was transported to late 19th century Ireland and the harsh conditions there. But what the book really brings is the richness of Joyce’s language. It is not an easy read; but it rewards one with phrases such as this, from chapter V, as good a description of a writer’s lack of inspiration as I have ever seen: “His mind bred vermin. His thoughts were lice born of the sweat of sloth.” Reading James Joyce is an effort, but an effort that pays dividends.

Antoni Libera: Madame (1999). A modern classic, as far as I’m concerned. The action takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Communist Poland, with the central character a secondary school student who falls in love with his French teacher. Sounds like a banal story, but Libera’s description of life in Poland in those dark days and the emotions of the young man are incredibly well crafted. I swallowed the 400-page book in 3 days or so. Available in English at Amazon.

Anne Griffin: When All Is Said (2019). Another Irish miracle. I bought it in Dublin last year, while browsing in a bookshop near Trinity College. It is Griffin’s debut novel. It is simply fantastic. As I write this, I am not done yet–I still have about 70 pages to go, out of a total of 266. But what I have read is sufficient to convince me that Ms. Griffin is a genius. The plot is simple on the surface. Quoting from the back cover: “At the bar of a grand hotel in a small Irish town sits 84-year old Maurice Hannigan. He’s alone, as usual–though tonight is anything but…Over the course of this evening, he will raise five toasts to the five people who have meant the most to him. Through these stories–of unspoken joy and regret, a secret tragedy kept hidden, a fierce love that never found its voice–the life of one man will be powerfully and poignantly laid bare.” This is not false advertising. This is the truth. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

Richard Llewellyn: How Green Was My Valley (1939). A 20th century classic which I just got to now. An epic novel about the hard life in the coal mining community of South Wales in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is a bit sentimental in places, but gives a poignant and bitter-sweet picture of what once was and is no more. The novel is told through the eyes of Huw Morgan, the son of a local community leader, and it has all the elements of the human condition: love, tragedy, joy, sadness and loss. It ends with the death of Huw’s father during the Tonypandy Riots in 1910; by then, the community in which Morgan had grown up and cherished had been torn apart by economic decline, internal strife and emigration. A sad ending, but a book which gave me understanding of many Welsh traditions and of modern history of a part of the UK of which I am very fond.

Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925). Another 20th century classic, probably one of the most important novels of the century; I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading it. Taking place in Vienna (I assume), it tells the story of young bank official who is arrested, charged and punished without ever finding out the nature of the charges or even the identity of the judges who sentence him. This plot is simple to summarise but of course the richness of the novel lies in its multi-layered description of the characters and their actions, and the observations on the nameless, all-powerful bureaucracy that is about to crush the protagonist. Many more people use the expression “kafkaesque” about some impenetrable bureaucratic process without ever having read this novel. Highly recommended. “The Trial” has been translated into many languages, and I read it in an excellent Danish translation, as my German is not good enough to read literature of this calibre.

Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body (2020). Ever since “discovering” Chinua Achebe a few years ago, I have been interested in African literature. I find it interesting and rewarding to listen to those voices which tell me things about Africa that I would never learn from the standard Western news media that I consume, or even from Western writers like Karen Blixen (“Out of Africa”). This novel is a good example. It takes place in contemporary Zimbabwe. The main character, a young-ish woman called Tambudzai, is struggling to create a life for herself in Harare. She is desperate to leave behind her native village in the highlands, physically and, more importantly, mentally, and in a way the whole book is about her internal struggles. This is not an easy book: there are many characters, many narratives, the setting is unfamiliar to this European reader, and to add a layer of complexity, this is the only novel I have ever read which is written in the second person. So Tambudzai is the “you” in the novel, and one wonders who is then telling the story–who is the “I”. The mystery is never solved but it does not matter. This book is brilliant, a rich, complex story from a complex place, not at all recovered from decades of colonialism, the struggle for independence and internal conflict. Among the blurbs from the back cover is New York Times’ characterisation of the novel as “a masterpiece”, and I can only agree.

In the autumn of 2021, the Nobel prizes were announced. As often happens, the winner of the literature prize was a relatively unknown writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar but living in England now. Given my interest in African literature, I immediately went looking for his books, which were not that easy to acquire–many had been printed in modest numbers, and the publishers had not yet ramped up the printing press in response to the Nobel prize. But I did get my hands on three of his novels, and in December 2021, I finished the first of them, Paradise (1994). What a revelation! Gurnah is a fantastic writer, and once again, reading an African author writing about the African experience gives me new perspectives on the continent. The novel takes place in East Africa during the early 20th century, when that part of Africa was colonised by the British and the Germans. The main character, Yusuf, is essentially sold as a semi-slave to a rich merchant, Aziz, to whom Yusuf’s father owes money. The novel follows Yusuf during the next 10-15 years, as he grows into a young man, working for Aziz. A simple storyline, but the book is a rich tapestry of life in Africa at the time, with all its complexities and the violent history. This is no stereotypical anti-colonial text; there are complex characters everywhere. I look forward to the other two of Gurnah’s books that I have on my shelf, “By the Sea” and “Gravel Heart.”

In March 2022, I finished Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. I am ambivalent about this book. Who am I to criticise the winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary price in the English-speaking world? But the book just did not do it for me. It is a collection of stories about British women–black, white, lesbian, straight–some are good, especially in the first half of this 450-page book. But finally, when I finished the book, I was left with a feeling of indifference. Compared to some of the other books I have read recently, such as Gurnah’s “Paradise”, this book falls short.

In October 2022, I finished my second Abdulrazak Gurnah novel, Admiring Silence (1996). I am reading his works more or less chronologically. This novel is quite different from Paradise. It takes place in modern times, partly in London, partly in Zanzibar. The main character leaves Zanzibar to study in England and stays there, working as a teacher in a not very nice school, but his partner Emma and their daughter Amelia give meaning to his life there. After 20 years he goes back to visit his family in Zanzibar, who are completely unaware that he is living with an English woman, and without being married to boot! The truth is finally forced out when the family arranges a marriage for him to a local girl, and he is compelled to tell them. He then goes back to England to resume his old life, but things do not quite work out as planned. This is a relatively simple story, yet, like the first novel, it is a rich tapestry of characters and a searing description of life in post-colonial Zanzibar, ruled by corrupt and incompetent elites while the ordinary people lack some of the basic necessities.

As is apparent from this list, I am taking an increasing interest in non-European, non-American literature. I really believe that to learn more about African or Asian countries, it is not enough to read The Economist or watch the news and documentaries on television. It is necessary in my view to read literature written in those countries. And no country is more important or more interesting in this context than India, soon the world’s most populous country, with an incredible diversity of religions, languages and cultures, and, despite the Hindu nationalist policies of the Modi government, it remains a vibrant democracy, certainly much more so than most other large Asian countries, where only Japan, South Korea and Taiwan can be considered truly democratic. So, earlier in 2022, I asked a friend in India for some recommendations on “classic” Indian literature. This is the list he gave me:

The two epics, which define the national psyche, translated/retold from Sanskrit by R.K.Narayan (we will meet him in another avatar below) or C.Rajagopalachari:



Classic Writers

Munshi Premchand – Godan (The Gift of a Cow) – arguably one of the two or three of the greatest Indian novels, essential to understand rural India. Translated from Hindi by Jai Ratan. I recommend this, because there is a decent translation available. I have read it in Hindi as a part of my school curriculum!

R.K.Narayan – Swami and Friends, The Guide, Malgudi Days (short stories) – all his works are set in a fictional small town in South India called Malgudi. Essential to understand small town culture and dynamics. The first internationally acknowledged Indian writer in English. Written in deceptively simple English.

Khushwant Singh – Train to Pakistan – the original partition novel

Satyajit Ray – The Complete Adventures of Feluda – wonderful detective short stories by the great film director, Satyajit Ray. They were also adapted into acclaimed movies directed by him

From the present crop of Indian/Indian Origin writers in English:

Sashi Tharoor – The Great Indian Novel – Satire in terrific prose

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger – Booker Prize winner 

Anita Desai – In Custody – Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Amitava Ghosh – Sea of Poppies -Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

I proceeded to look for these books on Amazon and other online bookstores, and have now bought several of them. I started with Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1915-2014). First published in 1956, this relatively short novel tells the story of the partition of British India into the two states of India and Pakistan following independence from Britain in 1947. The historical facts are known to most of us: the huge refugee streams, the massacres, the resulting enmity between the two neighbours, today both armed with nuclear weapons. But the strength of a novel like this is to bring the historical events down to a scale with which we, as individual human beings, can identify. The novel takes place in a remote village near the border, called Mano Majra, in which Sikhs and Muslims had lived together for hundreds of years. But then the outside world intrudes, and the hatreds that permeate the huge country intrude on life in the village and transform it forever–and not for the better. The grim story is beautifully told, Singh’s novel is a true classic of world literature in my view. Available on Amazon.

In early 2023, a book club was started at my office, and our first assignment was a novel by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna (1942-), The Year of the Hare. First published in English in 1995, this is a story of a man who lives out a fantasy that many of us have entertained from time to time–to escape the rat race in the city and simply disappear, leaving it all behind. The main character is Vatanen, a journalist in Helsinki. One evening, while on assignment, he hits a young hare on a snowy road, injuring its leg. Vatanen goes in search of the animal while his companion drives on to their destination, some small town where they were to cover a story. He finds the hare, and on the spur of the moment, he decides to leave his Helsinki life behind. The rest of the book recounts his subsequent adventures, on the road in the vastness of Finland, much of the action taking place in Lapland. This is an enjoyable book and a quick read at only 135 pages. The language (at least in the English translation that I read) is concise, matter-of-fact, almost like a newspaper story. No James Joyce-like flourishes here! The ending is a bit surrealist, but overall this is a very enjoyable read. Available on Amazon.


And then some works of non-fiction. This one reads like a novel, and is sadly relevant in these times of virulent racism and violence against people of colour, especially in America but also elsewhere. Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root (2016) describes, in harrowing detail, the lynching of two black men in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, followed by the forced expulsion of all black people from the county, a case of ethnic cleansing that persisted until the late 1980s and arguably still persists. If you want to understand the background for the BLM movement, this is as good a place to start as any.

I have always hated John Bolton, a right-wing extremist warmonger. But he is not stupid and has experience from several administrations. So when I saw that the fascist regime in the White House tried to stop the publication of his book, I simply had to buy it, even though I disliked the thought of giving my money to Bolton. I have now read the book, The Room Where It Happened (2020). It is not great literature, and as one might expect from a man who resigned from his job as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the narrative is quite self-serving. But still, the description of the decision process (if one can call it that) in formulating the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country is positively chilling. And Bolton is a credible witness, precisely because he is ideologically not that far removed from T***p, so his criticism is not coloured by differences over the basic direction of policy. Available everywhere, including Amazon.

I am an economist, and so at least one serious economics book made the confinement reading list. Unfortunately, it is only available in Danish. The book is Økonomien og virkeligheden (“The economy and reality”) by Katarina Juselius, professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen. It is not an academic treatise, but it does treat the serious question of the inadequacy of the economic models used by the Danish government (and most other governments) to analyse the effects of proposed policies. In her view, those models make too many simplifying assumptions and thereby miss the impact of structural features of the economy, such as the huge expansion of the financial sector following the deregulation of the past decades. The book was published in 2019 by Informations Forlag. To learn more about her research, have a look at her Copenhagen University web page (in English), and if you are really hard core, look for her 2006 book on Co-Integrated Vector Autoregressive (CVAR) models. Her message is important: we economists must study the real world and not get lost in mathematically elegant but fundamentally flawed theoretical models.

In early September 2020 I finished Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (2005). What prompted me to pick up the book was a question from my wife: how did the Jews come to Eastern Europe, so far from their Middle Eastern origins? Shamefully, I did not know the answer, even though this is where my origins are, my father having been born in Lublin, Poland. Kriwaczek, the son of Viennese Jews who escaped to Switzerland and then Britain just in the nick of time in the late 1930s, clearly has done a lot of research for this great book. He starts with the beginning–Roman times–and tells the story of how Jews spread across the Roman empire and indeed the influence they had on Europe’s cultural and economic development in the subsequent 1500 years. This is a part of the story that is rarely told–the story of Yiddish-speaking Jews usually starts with the poverty and persecution in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century and the tragedy of the 20th; but there is so much more to it that I simply never knew before I read this book. In the final chapter, we are taken to London’s Brick Lane, a street which has housed immigrants for centuries, as illustrated by a building that started life a Huguenot church, then was converted to a Methodist chapel, then became a synagogue and is now a mosque in what is today a Bangladeshi neighbourhood, the Jews having moved up and out to the suburbs. The book is available here.

A much lighter work of non-fiction is Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island (1995). Another book which I have had on my shelf for ages but only got around to reading this summer. Bryson, originally from the American mid-West, had come to England in 1973 and lived there for more than two decades. Before moving back to the US with his English wife, he embarked on a valedictory journey from the south coast to northern Scotland, and most of the book is a recounting of that journey. For an Anglophile like me, this is wonderful, light reading. At risk for providing “too much information”, I kept the book in the toilet. Its short chapters are ideal for reading while sitting on the throne; it would seem sacrilegious to read the other books listed here in such circumstances, but this book is ideal for this purpose. And I mean it as a compliment.

Another light book I just finished is Ned Boulting’s How I Won the Yellow Jumper (2011). Boulting covered the Tour de France of Britain’s ITV from 2003 onwards. He was a well-known football commentator at the time with no prior experience with  professional cycling. The title of the book refers to a mistake he made during one of his first broadcasts from the 2003 Tour in which he mis-named the Yellow Jersey. But he learned quickly, and the book is an entertaining mix of chapters about individual cyclists (Cavendish, Armstrong, Wiggins, Contador etc.) and stories about life as a reporter covering the tour: the modest hotels, food that ranges from sublime to awful, toilet facilities, everything is revealed. I think this book would make good summer reading even for people who are not into cycling.

In January 2021 I finished re-reading a classic Danish book from my adolescence in the 1970s. Dan Turèll was a writer, poet, performer and much else. He was extremely prolific, writing poems, books, newspaper columns, crime novels and much else. While he was intimately familiar with American culture, not least through his love of jazz, his writings are all about Copenhagen, the city where he was born and lived his entire life, a city he loved. The book I have just re-read is a collection of his newspaper columns from 1978 to 1993 in Denmark’s leading newspaper Politiken, called Dan Turèll i Byen – Greatest Hits (1998). The columns are short, typically 2-3 pages, and have life in the city of Copenhagen as the unifying theme. There are many gems, for example “Klar Tjald”, a review of the hashish market in the Christiania enclave from 1985, very much in the style of a restaurant review (“…my companion chose a Red Lebanon, mixed by a sweet Finnish girl, and had nothing but praise for it.”). Unfortunately for my international readership, most of Turèll’s writings are available in Danish only.

Dan Turèll died young, at only 47, in 1993. He is buried in Assistens Kirkegård, a cemetery in central Copenhagen which also houses the final resting places of luminaries such as H.C. Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. His grave is much visited and is adorned by the tools of his trade.

Dan Turèll’s grave.

In May 2021, just before the end of the national state of emergency here in Spain, I finished reading a fascinating book about something as prosaic as the container–the kind you see on ships, trains and lorries all over the world. Most books about business are utterly forgettable, usually too long, repetitive, poorly edited and, if written by a former CEO or other senior manager, full of self-serving drivel. None of this is true of The Box by Marc Levinson (2nd edition, 2016). As befits a book by a former economics editor of The Economist, this is a well-written, solidly researched piece of economic history, describing what I call the original “internet of things” (as opposed to the hyped IOT that for now is mostly vapourware) beginning with the invention of the shipping container in the 1950s and chronicling the transformation it caused, not just to the port cities around the world and to the transportation business, but to the global economy as a whole. None of the global supply chains, “just in time” inventory management and other aspects of the modern economy would be possible without the standardised container. Highly recommended.

If you want to see what we have cooked during the pandemic, you can look here.

%d bloggers like this: