14 Books getting key workers through COVID

Parisa Hashempour

With the pandemic still raging on, we asked some of our key workers to share the books that have been helping them through it

To finish a great book is to feel like Natalie Imbruglia circa 1997. That is, torn. With the best words chewed over, plucked out and sent to friends, or simply gobbled down in a race to the tale’s titillating climax; books are for so much more than simply reading.

They’re for sharing, escaping, learning and growing. For many of us, they are therapy. But for key workers operating in the UK during the pandemic they have been lifelines. Here, coronavirus front-liners reveal what reading means to them right now, how books helped them cope, and most importantly, the very books that got them through it all. 

The Prison Doctor by Dr Amanda Brown

 Prison Doctor cover

Charlie Ross, Prison officer 

I have been running the prison’s COVID-19 symptomatic isolation unit. This means anyone who shows symptoms, has been in contact with a confirmed case or is new to the jail must live on my unit for 14 days in total quarantine. The PPE shortage in March meant I had one mask to last me days of shifts.

We aren’t allowed to take any technology into the prison, no phones, Fitbits or Kindles. An old-school, bent spine and crinkled-paged book is something I had never thought I would turn to and love—but I’m so glad I did. The Prison Doctor reminded me I’m not alone in my work and the traumas I see. I also use the book to send to others to explain my job, it gave me the words when I couldn’t find the energy to use my own.

Pie Fidelity: In Defence of British Food by Pete Brown

Pie Fidelity

Kirsty Hall, Year Six teacher 

I love food and eating out and in a time of restaurant closures and travel bans, this was the perfect remedy to fill that hole in my life. Pete is from Yorkshire (like me) so this was also close to my heart.

The book reminded me about food’s power to bring people together and was a good trip down memory lane for childhood tastes and particular memories of food. It’s a poignant defence of the value of British street food and questions why certain foods are “looked down on” even though they are cheap, filling and tasty.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Megan Williams, Health food shop worker

There have been a lot of people coming into the shop seeking remedies for anxiety for poor sleep during this time, and it feels good to be able to help them. Sometimes you're the only person they will speak to that day, and it's nice to be able to offer a support and company to people.

After a long day at work, reading is a form of escapism and definitely helps me relax—I can almost feel my blood pressure falling when I settle down with a good book. Vuong is a poet so the imagery of this book is just so beautiful. It is delicate and raw and emotive, and it really took my breath away—I sobbed when I had finished it. I'd recommend it because it lifts you out of your world and into his. I was totally immersed in the telling of this story, and it was good to feel someone else's experiences and pain instead of wallowing in my own.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns

Margaret Pearson, Civil servant and school governor clerk

It is just a wonderful book. I have read it before, and I was waiting for the right time to reread it. This year felt the right time as the women in the book face so many challenges. It was a reminder that despite the pandemic our lives remain relatively good.

The book takes you on a journey, you feel like a part of the story and see everything from the perspective of the main character. You feel their pain and emotion while gaining an understanding of life for women in Afghanistan. I really did forget about everything else while reading and I just couldn’t wait to pick it up each time. I also rationed myself, so I didn’t read it too quickly—it kept the pleasure going for longer. I’m grateful that 2020 gave me that time to read.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton 

 Ghosts - Dolly Alderton

Dani Tomlinson, Medical secretary 

This book really makes you laugh, and with such a challenging year behind us, we all need something to perk us up and escape to. I love Dolly Alderton's style of writing. I enjoyed her first novel and I knew this one would be just as good. I thought it was clever how she used the term "ghosting" in not only a physical sense of being ghosted by someone but in a metaphorical sense too.

The past year has been hard because there has been no outlet or form of respite as you can't go anywhere or see anyone. Reading has been really good for me. I enjoy writing, and I have been doing it a lot more during the pandemic. Reading more has also improved my writing.

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

And I Do Not Forgive You - Amber Sparks

* Zara, Anti-terrorism finance analyst 

Between giving birth at the start of the pandemic and heading back to work soon after, I’ve had little time for unwinding. The idea of a book composed of short stories appealed because it felt more manageable. Every story was perfectly crafted and felt so deliberate and real. I always admire when an author possesses the ability to take you on a rollercoaster ride through the darkest and strangest corners of their imagination and that’s what I found in this book.

It’s helped me completely switch off from the warped reality we’re all facing. For me that reality consisted of post-partum depression, loneliness, exhaustion, baby s**t and vomit. Not to mention the fact all of that happened in the middle of a global pandemic with no real access to family. This book made me laugh and made me focus on myself again.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie - Candice Carty Williams

Adya Rana, Trainee teacher 

My interest in anti-racism stemmed from working as a British-Indian employee in two predominantly white industries (marketing and sustainability) but through books like Queenie I learned my experience of racism cannot be compared to that of a Black woman living in the UK. Via relatable situations like office politics, power dynamics and romances, to embarrassing one-night stands, we are shown through Queenie’s first-person narrative the persisting presence of racism.

It also highlighted the importance of knowing your worth, and appreciating true and genuine friendships; those who always show up, give you their precious time and are by your side through the good and the bad. I definitely owe much of surviving 2020 to those good, true friendships!

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover

Larissa Buran, Track and Trace Centre Worker

This memoir really touched me. The author’s persistence and constant fight for understanding and owning her own identity and voice in the world resonated with me a lot. It helped me look at my own privileges and be more grateful for life, especially amid the complaints and resignation the pandemic brought on.

Reading definitely helped me to cope with the challenges of 2020. Mostly, I read memoirs or books based on true stories, but also romances or classics. It was definitely my way of carving out my own time and getting my head away from COVID for a bit!

My System by Aron Nimzowitsch 

My System - Aron Nimzowitsch

James Davies, Support Worker 

Not only is this book a terrific read, but also, I see chess as very didactic and found comfort in the comparisons it holds with life. During the pandemic, views on life and security have changed. Not everything is in our control and no matter how calculated one is in applying order, chaos can ensue.

But in both life and chess, we must keep moving, and it’s through these movements we gain knowledge and insight. I’ve been delivering care to vulnerable adults, which is challenging at the best of times but exacerbated by current circumstances. Through reading, even if it’s about a game, I’ve gained perspective, and I was able to leave whatever situational tribulations I was experiencing behind, even if it was just for a few pages. 

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I know about Love - Dolly Alderton

Emily Josephine Halliwell O’Brien, Deputy headteacher

My partner of 11 years and I were due to be married in August 2020. There have been many date revisions, but we are hopeful and looking forward to sealing the deal sometime soon. He has been a shining sunbeam in this difficult year; but a liberal amount of Pinot Grigio and reading in the bath have also played a key role.

I loved the silly, messy relatable vibe of Dolly Alderton’s memoir. The quote “Nearly everything I know about love, I've learned from my long-term friendships with women” resonated with me a lot. 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments - Margaret Atwood

Ciara Roddy, Care home activities leader

Before I began working there, deaths at the care home meant morale was low and many residents lost weight due to anxiety and upset. This book really helped in 2020 because I needed a way of shutting out the stresses and difficulties of the year. It helped me turn off after work as I was able to shut out everything and get fully lost in the drama!

I’ve dealt with the last year OK, thanks to family and friends. But reading has also played a big role—at the start of lockdown I made a list of books I wanted to check off and read, and I started working my way through them. I bought a Kindle too, to make it easier to get books without ordering online. It was a hobby I could do without having to risk even receiving packages.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Purple Hibiscus

Anna McClatchey, Clinical Fellow in Respiratory Medicine 

Purple Hibiscus was emotionally challenging, yet it was interesting to read a book based on such a different culture and background. It highlighted the many ways race, sex and money can influence children’s upbringing but how family connections can get you through any of life’s challenges.

This book was simply a way to escape the realities of daily life in 2020, be that the struggles of lockdown, not being able to see family and friends and also getting through tough shifts dealing with death and grieving families. I’ve found connecting with friends in new ways to be a great way of keeping focused on what and who is important to me. Reading has been another way for me to connect with different worlds and explore how history, politics and current affairs affect our views.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman book cover

Ben Whiteside, Trainee teacher 

I haven’t been able to travel home as much as I’d like this year so reading books from home has made me feel more connected to my family and friends back in Belfast. Milkman is set in a nameless city full of anonymous citizens in the middle of a violent internal conflict—a facsimile of Belfast during the Troubles. Burns strips away all the cultural context and doesn’t acknowledge or even name any political entities in the novel. England is “the country over the water”, the south of Ireland is “the country over the border”, Catholics are “us”, Protestants are “them”.

The way the whole thing plays out is ridiculous and doesn’t make any sense. However, it did make me reflect guiltily on the fact that I have never been able to fully accept my Reebok trainers because they have a tiny Union Jack on them. The main way the pandemic has affected me is by making home feel much further away than it used to. I have read a few books by Irish authors recently: Anna Burns, Colin Barrett, Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien. It’s a good way to connect with home until it’s safe to travel again.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

Sally McKerron, Junior doctor in ICU 

When things change every day, it doesn't feel like there's time or space to reflect properly. If there were, sadly, I wonder how many of the NHS workforce would struggle to come into work the next day. Books are a small remedy, helping us reflect on what has happened to us through reading about what has happened to others.

Call it schadenfreude or that comforting feeling of "things could always be worse" there was just something therapeutic about A Little Life and its relentlessness. Coming in at just over 700 pages it follows the lives of four young men in New York, focusing on the utterly miserable protagonist Jude.

It's a slog — and weeks of pure literary therapy. It's a tough read but worth it for the beautiful writing and character arcs. It might sound dramatic but never before have I come to know characters in such an intimate way. When I finished it I was bereft. I wept so much I had to go to bed. In fact, I'm welling up now. 

Escapism, perspective or offering us a way to reconnect with the world, this is how books soothe our minds and burn life back into us in times of hardship. Let us applaud the key workers in their efforts amidst this pandemic—and say thank you for the reading list too.

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