Queen Elizabeth I famously had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” but this pandemic lockdown has turned us all into voyeurs. At least Skype, House Party, Zoom and all the other apps give us windows into each other’s homes thanks to the cameras and screens on our online devices.

If you are sharing face time with friends or family the living space you see behind your interlocutors is probably familiar. Most of my encounters are with strangers because I’m lucky enough to still be presenting a daily interview programme on television. As we discuss the solemn issues of the day my eyes are tempted to stray towards the background to my guests, conveniently blown up to more than life size on a giant screen.

The first thing that strikes me is how open we have become. Apart from Channel 4 News anchors and a couple of official spokesmen for lobby groups nobody seems to have taken the trouble to set dress with props or the Pleiade edition of À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, to show just how cultured they are. Instead they let it all hang out – books, cats, kids’ drawings, musical instruments, random pictures and knickknacks they never found the heart to throw out.

I can report that the nation is still managing to keep its homes neat and tidy, and I feel guilty for teasing Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former spokesman, about the dishes piled in his kitchen sink.

I’ve been struck most by the books. Just about all my guests have shelves and shelves full of them and nearly all of them in ‘working libraries’ of ill-matched and thumbed volumes rather than interior decoration bought by the yard.

If you are reading this, you are probably thinking “so what” and you probably have a laptop with a camera on it in some kind of study area at home. You and the experts and pundits on screen are not typical. According to a survey carried out for Aviva for World Book Day 2017, the average number of books per household was 104 and dropping because of digital technology. 10% of homes contain no books, those you see on you’re the screen evidently belong to the 7% of us who have more than 500 volumes.

For fans, books provide essential solace during this time of effective solitary confinement. Most bibliophiles can easily find books they’ve bought but never read on the shelves. Getting hold of new ones is more difficult. Libraries are shut and lots have already been closed for good or largely given up on curating paper and print. In spite of pleas that bookshops provide essential services, they have been forced to close in the UK, Italy and France. They are obvious locations for contagion but no more than a supermarket. The only good news is for online booksellers who report a surge in orders. After all the world dominating Amazon began by selling books.

There is an obvious virus-time reading list of three books: Daniel Defoe’s Diary of the Plague Year (1665), Camus’s La Peste, and Pale Rider by Laura Spinney about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I’ve got all three in a pile but I’ve only got as far as the Defoe what with the attractions of boxsets on TV and raiding the fridge.

Some commentators suggest that Defoe’s account shows that human nature has not changed in 350 years, the same selfish instincts for self-preservation kick in in the face of a perceived mortal threat. Even though the first recorded case of bubonic plague recorded in late 1664 was in Drury Lane a few yards from where I am writing today I draw a different and more optimistic lesson. We are responding to this danger, with knowledge, intelligence and compassion which our ancestors sorely lacked. This makes up this week’s Coronavirus Silver Lining.

The Diary reads as a contemporaneous account. In fact Daniel Defoe was only five years old at the time of the great plague of London. He first published his book 57 years later in 1722. Even so that great author Anthony Burgess rightly dubbed Defoe “our first great journalist because he was born, not into literature, but into life”.  Drawing on his sources, Defoe shows how superstition and fear dominated popular reaction to the plague. Those who could fled the capital, those who remained shut up the infected in their homes. The future Charles III tested positive in Aberdeenshire; Charles II avoided the plague by moving his court to Oxford.

Nobody knew how the bubonic plague was spread. Contagion between humans was blamed – the way Coronavirus is passed – rather than rats and fleas, the real culprits then. In the absence of science and medical treatment, people turned to religion, superstition, quack remedies and, in some cases, aggressive bravado.

Today we are much luckier. We have medical science to rely on for prevention and treatment. However imperfectly it may be being provided, Covid-19 is nothing like as destructive of human life as the plague was in the areas where it is found.

Similarly the majority of the victims of the Spanish flu a century ago were killed by bacterial infection and not the virus itself. Standards of hygiene have improved beyond recognition since then.

If you can get hold of old books about past disasters, they are worth a look. They might even cheer you up in these sad times.

It’s also worth reading Reaction. Newspapers are having a hard time now for obvious reasons. But online sites like this have come into their own with detailed and expert comment and analysis.