Reading outside

Dan Woodger for Penguin

A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister delivered an announcement the nation had been waiting for: the beginning stages of easing lockdown. It was confusing and there was a chart that looked like it had been borrowed from Nando’s Peri-ometre, but among the conflicting messages about staying at home and staying alert I deduced one crucial subtext: we could read outside again.

Yes, the list of simple pleasures we miss in a post-Covid-19 landscape is ever-growing: pub gardens, ‘grabbing’ a sandwich, hugging our mums. But one thing that has risen to the top of mine is reading a book in public, something that – until Boris Johnson announced we could "sit in the sun in your local park" –  had become decidedly verboten. Because to read in public is to sit down in public, or to not pay fearsome attention to keeping two metres away from another person in public, and neither of those things ascribed to lockdown law.

But while others were tapping up their favourite geographically convenient people to head to the park with, or plotting a bout of family-friendly sport (something that I genuinely cannot comprehend), I started to compile a specific to-read pile: the books I wanted to take outside, with a blanket and a bottle of water, and indulge in.

On it there was Wilding, Isabella Tree’s invigorating account of transforming an agricultural farm into a haven for near-extinct animals. Next, Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle, a revolutionary environmental call-to-arms that inspires even the insect-averse to rootle out a magnifying glass. As for fiction, I threw in To The Lighthouse – all those afternoons spent on languid lawns! – and Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, which brought an element of unnerving creepiness to the party. Shoved in a bookshop tote bag (the closest I can get to the real thing at the moment) and off I went, to the park.

One of the more unexpected side-effects of lockdown was the innate suspicion and paranoia that has been injected into our daily outings: are we socially distant enough?

It’s easy to spot those brave and optimistic souls who have embarked upon a socially distant date: the usual nerves and excitement atomised by sitting at either end of a bench, connected by a kind of attraction that has long faded for those who have had to spend the past two months looking at only their partner. Friends meeting up for a run, meanwhile, jog six feet apart in their best lycra, animatedly catching up on Normal People. To be outside now carries an air of performance that might be better expressed on a T-shirt: “Don’t mind me! I’m two metres away!”

A book, then, doubles up as the perfect visual indicator that one is taking their outdoor pursuits in lockdown responsibly. A quiet, solo activity that might involve sunbathing, but is primarily for the intention of reading. Indeed, you share a household with all of these books! It is, in many ways, the stark opposite of that sweaty topless man barrelling down the pavement.

Handy signifiers aside, there is such a joy to be found in reading outside: especially when we’ve been blessed with a warm May and even our lockdown reading nooks have got a little claustrophobic after so many weeks. Before lockdown, it was just about getting warm enough – in London, at least - to read outside, in a coat, on a sunny day, and it was the kind of lunchbreak activity that ushered in a changing of the seasons. We just didn’t know, then, how significant a change that was going to be.

But before that, I have so many other memories of reading outside. Of this time last year, taking Lara Williams Supper Club into the local park on the first warm evening of the year. Of hiding in a self-made den in the back garden as a child, tearing through Dick King-Smith’s Sophie Adventures. Of devouring Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after handing in my university dissertation, and being able to read off-syllabus for the first time in years, and feeling the daisies prickle underneath my skin.

In all of these memories, the sense of where I read is as strong as what. During lockdown, we’ve read to transport us to places beyond our new confines. As they lift, we can start to weave those landscapes – the fictional, and the ones outside our front door - together again.

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