If you’re picking up a new book to read in the hope of learning something new, I have a surprise for you: it’s not there. The beauty and genius of literature is that even though the whole gamut of human experience has been covered in previous works, new books always have something to tell us. It’s never something new, but it is always something revelatory, unpredictable, astounding, and the fact that it’s not novel doesn’t mean it can’t lead to something new in the way we think, feel or understand. Whoever said there’s no value in variations on the same theme was obviously wrong.
The coronavirus outbreak has led to an outbreak of writing about human life caught in the grips of a pandemic, with all its consequences, real or imagined. Riveted as we are to the now slow-moving present indefinite tense, we don’t always grasp the awkward truth that we are not the first to experience times such as these, nor are these times without precedent in the theatre of human history.
For some, it is comforting to know that the past looks sympathetically on our present predicament, with countless writers, authors and artists rehearsing our pitiful scraps of experience. For others, the fact that we have nothing truly original to offer in terms of how we respond to the present situation is a harrowing realisation. Resignation, boredom, despair, anxiety, relief, carelessness, diligence, heroism, sacrifice, sympathy, disgust, impatience, and the list is as long as the shelves of any national library – all have been sung before and will continue to be extolled, lamented and explored for as long as we have a heart to feel and a mind to contemplate with.