What Good are Books, in a Situation Like This?

From The Guardian:

[by Sarah Perry, the author of The Essex Serpent]

Some months ago I stood in the pulpit of Lancaster Priory and spoke on the virtue of art. What do we mean, I said, by “a good book”? I proposed that literature had use beyond pleasure, and that moral purpose was intrinsic to any book worth the cover price: the only way is ethics. I quoted Aristotle; I burnished my halo. My duty, I said, was to write good books, and this was an act of love. Well, a haughty spirit comes before a fall, and I tripped on a virus, and fell into believing that literature was useless and I’d wasted my life in its pursuit. Even before the lockdown began I could not write. It baffled me that I’d ever done such a trivial thing. I have a banner hanging on my study door: “L’amour c’est tout”. It bloody isn’t, I thought. I never went in.

This is not to say I have been unable to create at all. With the privileges of comfort and time, I sew patchwork quilts, make bread, play the piano. This is common: “Everybody is feeling the same thing,” wrote Virginia Woolf of Londoners in the second world war, “therefore nobody is feeling anything.” Social media has become a village hall for the display of sourdough loaves and cross stitch samplers: fear and love sublimated into all the things we think our mothers did. What else can we do, inhabiting a place of present or anticipated grief?

But these are crafts, which distinguish themselves from art by their utility. A quilt will keep you warm; a book can do so only if you burn it. What I felt when I looked at my shelves was not consolation, but contempt. What good were books, in the end? Nobody calls for a writer when their leg is broken; nobody wants a story when they cannot breathe. I am capable enough, I thought: I could have been a lab technician for a brilliant virologist, I could have administered a hospital ward. Meanwhile writers pleaded the case for literature’s place in a catastrophe, and pleaded well. I admired them as I suppose an atheist might admire a priest’s sincerity, and the manuscript of my novel remained unopened.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

With due respect to Ms. Perry, PG thinks books are invaluable for those who are sheltering in place.

4 thoughts on “What Good are Books, in a Situation Like This?”

  1. She could not be more wrong. The image that instantly came to mind was of my dear late mum, in a hospice with terminal cancer, still escaping into the well loved books that had sustained her throughout her life. And yes, Sarah. That’s what us asthmatics do as well, when we have a virus and can’t breathe (like the one I had at New Year which may or may not have been this virus, but certainly took my breath away) – we sit up and we read as long as we can. Sometimes all night. And stories are sometimes the only thing – other than medication- to see us through.

  2. This is the most feeble excuse for a writer not writing I’ve ever come across.

    I was halfway through writing my latest book when the panicdemic started, and I’ve nearly finished it now. I’m sure most of PG’s other author followers are like me.

  3. But these are crafts, which distinguish themselves from art by their utility.

    Art is useless.

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