Let’s rewind to this time last year, Summer 2019, and remember how I’d just finished my first year at university as an English Lit student, how I was thankful for the break from exams and coursework, though perhaps most interestingly, how I was excited to take a break from reading. I faced the summer ahead knowing that if I chose to read anything that it would be a familiar favourite, one that I have read and re-read so many times before – essentially, comfort reading. Now let’s move forward to right now, Summer 2020, and acknowledge how different my approach to reading currently is and has been for the past few months. Since the beginning of lockdown, reading has been a constant for me. There was no welcome break from the words on the page but a hunger for reading that I’ve surprisingly not experienced before as an English student and avid reader. Of course, this may be a direct result of the lack of opportunity to do much else during the lockdown period as well as that need for escapism we all know too well, but I think there are definitely other factors that have inspired me to ‘seize the book’.
Towards the beginning of lockdown, there was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movements across the world being documented on the news and online. There was a call for people to open their minds and hearts and greater understand the cause of the movement by educating themselves. This is exactly what I tried to do, and I turned to my favourite form of education: the books. One of the first books I read as a direct result of what I was hearing and seeing on the news was Reni Eddo-Lodge’s novel Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. This book was hugely educational and a very accessible read, though at times difficult as I realised how my experiences, as a young white woman, would never be the same as that of a young black woman, and this angered me. I would hugely recommend this book to anyone I meet, young or old, as I believe the effect that it had on me was, and will continue to be, long-lasting.
Secondly, I read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, again to educate myself, yet this time it was more focused towards the experiences of black women of all ages within the society of the United Kingdom. There are twelve insightful and illuminating perspectives throughout the book and I was enlightened and humbled by the demonstration of a collective amongst gender as well as race. What I have learnt from these two books in particular is that I am extremely privileged, and I need to remember that and use my privilege where I can to help those whose voices need to be heard and taken seriously. Normally, I am not much of a non-fiction reader, but the amount of valuable information that I have learnt from these books has permanently changed my perspective towards non-fiction and I would encourage any reader, who wants to branch out from their normal genre, or who wants to feel more connected and understanding of societal issues, to turn to these excellent books.
To branch into the world of feminism and self-empowerment (which at points I’ve definitely needed during lockdown) I had many options to choose between, however, the debut novel by illustrator and activist Florence Given, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, seemed the most exciting place to start. This book was powerful. This book was empowering. This book was full of so much love and appreciation for women I was overwhelmed! If you don’t already follow Florence Given on social media – do it! She’s direct, she’s uplifting, she’s a strong woman who loves women and its truly awe-inspiring – her illustrations are also pretty amazing too. From reading this book, I felt like Florence was talking directly to me, she was encouraging me to love myself, to believe in myself, to stand up for myself and it was definitely something that I needed to hear. When considering the context of lockdown, it has been extremely isolating for a lot of people which can significantly damage someone’s mental health. Lockdown has limited our social interactions with family members and friends, it has limited our opportunity outdoors and as a result of this we may have spent more time online on social media or watching TV. This has opened a door to increased insecurity as we may have sat and compared the lives of others on social media and TV to our own – at least I definitely have. When I was having a bout of low self-esteem, I would allow Florence Given to lift me up out of my funk and hear her words of encouragement to stop these comparisons and rebel against this competitive trait of social media. Adapting this to my own life and stopping these comparisons is a process, but one that I am slowly moving towards as this book has provided me with a new perspective: change that jealousy and insecurity to appreciation and self-love. As I said, it’s a process, but I hope that one day I will completely believe that I am the strong, confident, bad-ass woman that Florence Given knows I am.
Very late to the party with this book I know, but during this period I finally got around to reading Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies): Amazing Women on What the F-Word Means to Them by Scarlett Curtis. The multitude of different perspectives and expressions of feminism from actors, activists, poets and authors of all backgrounds and ages was inspiring and educational. These essays made me laugh, these essays made me feel powerful, these essays made me feel understood in many instances – it was a hugely enjoyable read and a great entry into the feminist movement and how that movement has changed from its origins. My favourite pieces would have to be Helen Fielding’s ‘Bridget Jones’ Feminism Diary Today’ which explored the societal changes and the changing expectations of women in the modern age alongside Keira Knightley’s ‘The Weaker Sex’ which was a heartfelt dedication to her daughter encouraging her to remember her strength and use it. As I said, I feel ashamed almost that it’s taken me this long to read this book that was published in 2018 as I have seen it advertised everywhere and it has been recommended to me by so many friends prior to this point! I guess I can personally thank lockdown for making sure that I finally got around to reading it!
Now we’ve reached August, I can look back and marvel at the books I’ve read during this lockdown period and feel proud of myself. I’m proud that I actually stuck at the reading (as a student reading non-stop throughout the academic year, the summer is usually my downtime), and that I branched out of my comfort zone in the attempt to make myself more socially and culturally aware of important issues. It has again proven to me the power and the vast amount of knowledge that can be gained from reading. I hope that I can continue to push myself out of my comfortable reading zone further and, not to be cliché, broaden my horizons. My reading has definitely been affected by lockdown, but in a hugely positive way, and I can’t wait for what I am going to read next! Don’t worry Austen and Brontë, I will eventually get back to re-reading you – ‘eventually’ being the key word…
Words by Meg Shona Halpin-Webster
Image by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash