Reading during COVID-19

How a 1940–1942 story of war and occupation helped me reflect on the ways my life is changing during COVID-19.

Calyn Pillay
5 min readApr 15, 2020


Somewhere between the pages of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, I was captured by how the war and occupation of France by the Germans had irrevocably changed the most mundane aspects of their lives. Men became soldiers, changing seasons marked the duration loved ones were gone, the sounds of footsteps allowed one to tell friend from foe.

“But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others…Yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this, this is forever.”
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Française

We are living through a ‘problem unique to our times’ — the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown in South Africa. Similarly, to those who have lived through stranger times than these, I am finding the mundane and ordinary in my life are shifting. These shifts are symbols of the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19. In knowing them I hope to learn about the intimate shifts occurring around and within me.

This is the first of a series of articles that captures these small changes. Each article shares one good shift, one challenging shift and one opportunity to change.

The good

🌹: Books have always been a comfort for me — so much so that I will go to a bookstore if I start to find myself being overwhelmed, tired or upset while out. I recentre by flipping through the pages and find myself amidst the chaos.

Over the last few weeks, I have felt ‘trapped’ among all the books I have selected, promised to read, brought home and never opened. Sharing this lockdown with my books, they began to take on a new form, no longer bringing me comfort rather reminding me of the unfulfilled promises and half fulfilled choices, beckoning me to come alive — to live my choices.

Reading has become an outward exploration of the worlds the authors share and an inward window into my patience, imagination and preferences.

My ordinary collection of bookish things: a reading nook, a view and my books.

The challenge

📌: Sometimes and unexpectedly I wonder about the future possibilities that can arise from this present moment. More often than not I settle on a feeling that this will help us make our healthcare systems more equitable. Other times I worry that this lockdown is the calm — the routine, the ordinary people carrying on with their lives — until they can’t anymore due to barbarism. Simon Mair’s article: “What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures” is a richer look into some future possibilities.

“Important events — whether serious, happy or unfortunate — do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves. Such events highlight what is hidden in the shadows, they nudge the spirit towards a place where it can flourish.”― Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Française

“What hopefully is clear is that all these scenarios leave some grounds for fear, but also some for hope. COVID-19 is highlighting serious deficiencies in our existing system. . .Hopefully, we will use this crisis to rebuild, produce something better and more humane. But we may slide into something worse.” — Simon Mair

The challenge is to work towards the future we want while not being scared into inaction by the futures we fear.

the opportunities

🌱: A striking feature of Irene’s storytelling is her ability to distinguish characters and simultaneously expose elements of common humanity between them. One such feature she uses is social class. Depicted in the below quote:

“What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork.”
Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

As middle-class South African, I feel growing internal tensions around this position. I am grateful that the things that make me a middle-class South African — my education, income and neighbourhood also provide me with a security net during this time. Simultaneously, these safeties and continued pleasures into lockdown remind of how much more vulnerable others may be.

photo cred: Johnny Miller photography and the IMF.

We are all trying to survive this moment while waiting for the new future. However, somewhere in the living and waiting through COVID-19, we are changing in the way we work, parent, read and in a million other ways. Perhaps the shifts I go through in this series will resonate with you, perhaps they won’t. Hopefully, they will like Irene’s work, make us all more aware of how the traces of the big changes can be found in the oddest and most ordinary of things.

P.s cataloguing your own changes can be a helpful exercise during this ‘problem unique to our time’.



Calyn Pillay

is a MSc Med (Bioethics & HealthLaw) candidate at Wits. Interested in Effective altruism, Human Rights and Parity.