So how are you going on the stockpiling? Do you have a toilet paper mountain? Do you have a hill of beans and a mound of meat to chew on, along with a lagoon of wine from which to sip these long and lonely evenings?
Bravo bravo, but remember that the state of the mind is as important as the state of the belly, as the wise have known forever. Consider this, from Sa'adi the Persian poet who lived and died 800 years ago.
If thou of fortune be bereft
And of thy store alone are left
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.
I'm not sure about the hyacinths, but the principle is sound. Man does not live by bread alone, nor yet by toilet roll. For just as a dog in the pound pines and eventually gives up the will to live, so we, as social creatures, pine without the stimulus of others. People held too long in isolation go mad. So if we are forced, as much of the world has been forced, into a state of quarantine, what will save us, what are our soul-feeding hyacinths?
Well first there's that old friend of the lonely, the television and its sprawling cousin the internet. There's some good stuff on television these days, fictions that grip and documentaries that delve, but they remain the exceptions. And even the best television doesn't fully satisfy the viewer, for the simple reason that to watch television is to be passive. There is nothing to do but absorb the images and sounds, and mere passivity is never enough for us. We want to take part. You don't take part with television. But you do with the printed word.
The printed word is nothing, is ink on wood pulp, a series of marks that have no meaning, until a human brain absorbs and translates them. A book is just a brick until it's read. Reading is active.
Here's a sentence: the dog lay on the sofa. If 50,000 people read that sentence there will be 50,000 dogs perceived and 50,000 sofas, and not one of them the same as any other. For to read is to imagine and to imagine is to create. Creating engrosses us and keeps us sane. So stockpile books. What books? Whatever you fancy.
These days I re-read far more than I read, because every time you re-read a book you bring an older psyche to it and you find the book has changed. I'm currently reading Lucky Jim for perhaps the fifth time. It still makes me laugh but in different places. And it makes me sigh now too, with recognition.
If I had to choose a reading menu for quarantine I'd first stuff the larder with my favourite snob and bigot Evelyn Waugh. (He's out of favour now because of that snobbery and bigotry, but that is to confuse the artist with the art. Mozart was a sponger and a reprobate but his tunes still make the heart dance).
I'd like to take the whole Waugh canon, but if I limited myself to a single three-course meal, I'd take Decline and Fall for starters, his first and funniest; for mains Brideshead Revisited, so I could wallow in the richness of love, like "drowning in honey, stingless"; and for a tart dessert I'd take The Loved One, whose skewering truths about the USA remain as piercing now as then. That would be the first week of quarantine delightfully spent.
For snacks I'd take the poets of course, an anthology that held the best of laconic Auden, gloom-drenched Larkin, tortured Hopkins, wistful Hardy, high-priest Eliot, booming Whitman - oh the list is long and lovely, a pleasure just to dip the fingers in the jar and see what treat emerges.
And then I'd like to take a novelty, a major work I haven't read. The first inevitable thought is War and Peace, the second Proust. But I've started both before and foundered every time. I don't know why. So perhaps I'd take the Bible, the King James version of course. Its rhythms underlie all English prose. And like anyone who speaks the language I'm for ever quoting from it without knowing that I'm doing so. I open the Chambers Dictionary of Quotations now at the Bible and choose a page at random. "Hath the rain a father?... I am escaped with the skin of my teeth….Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble."
I want to read more of this. I fear no quarantine.