A Handful of Reading in the Lockdown

An article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera addresses the question of why booksales and reading  have enjoyed revivals during the Covid 19 lockdowns. This is by Alessandro Piperno and portions are translated below:

…Personally I am grateful to Evelyn Waugh ; yes, to him, the great English novelist: dandy, traveler, reactionary, snob, misanthrope, alcoholic, man of proverbial intractability and contempt, and yet or perhaps precisely for this, an incomparable designer. I am grateful to him for having conceived one of the most brilliant stories ever written about the insane spell that strikes us poor compulsive readers after adolescence. The tale is tucked into the end of A Handful of Dust, for some his best novel: when Tony Last, the protagonist, an idealistic gentleman plagued by chronic imbecility, decides to embark on an adventurous journey of spiritual rebirth in the Amazon. Poor Tony! He’s taken a beating. First the son who died in a hunting accident, then the discovery of his wife’s adultery. In the best tradition, all he has to do is put on the role of the explorer and set off for who knows where.

Of course, the expedition turns out to be yet another idiotic choice. In a few weeks, everything falls apart. Tony falls ill with malaria and loses his travel companion. A Mr. Todd thinks about saving him: a superb cross between the Conradian Kurtz and the psychopathic Annie Wilkes, in short, one of those absurd heroes that only Waugh’s satirical genius could have given birth. As it happens, in fact, Mr Todd, although he has a passion for Dickens, of which he owns all the books, is also hopelessly illiterate. That’s right, he can’t read. The son of an Indian and a missionary from Barbados (from whom he inherited a decent library), Todd is English-speaking but has never learned to read and has never moved from his shack in a clearing in the middle of an impenetrable forest. Until recently, he had a personal reader: a Georgetown black man who earned his loaf by reading Dickens’ novels to his master. Long dead, he left the eccentric Mr Todd orphaned with the adventures of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. Long story short, when Todd discovers that Last is fully literate, aware that the gentleman will never be able to leave that place without his help, he imprisons him by forcing him to read to him every damn evening and until death do us part, long passages from the great Dickensian masterpieces. Well, if this isn’t some sublime satire against a passion for reading, then I really don’t know where else to look. It’s not clear how some people think that reading makes us better people.

It was of Tony Last and his relentless jailer that I was thinking the other night when, at dinner with my generous editor, I learned not without satisfaction that for some time the book market, chronically plagued by sales crises and financial shortages, has been going through. a season if not thriving at least encouragingly.

[…] Maybe when people are happy or have better things to do they don’t read. Perhaps reading is a mournful and solipsistic fallback. Of course it can also be seen otherwise. When life becomes a damn serious thing then good old introspection is back in vogue. However you see it, it seems that the pandemic has acted on certain impressionable consciences such as the perverse Mr Todd, forcing some of us to shut up at home to read Dickens.

Yet, net of these slightly snobbish cynicisms inspired by that grim satanasso [?] Evelyn Waugh, and although [my editor] has an irredeemable hatred for the pandemic in progress, it is nice to know that books (Cinderella with broken soles) are doing less worse than usual. […]

The translation is by Google with a few edits. The Google program does not have an English equivalent for “saltanasso” which is used as a description of Evelyn Waugh. Perhaps one of our readers can give some help with that in a comment as provided below.
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