How to read when you're scared and self-isolated
For when you realize you actually don't want to read an apocalypse novel
Already, the world I’ve lived in all my life seems foreign to me. One weekend ago, my friend Hannah was in town. Already, the questions about quarantines and spread of disease were beginning to float through the air—a whisper not a scream. Usually, when Hannah comes to visit we are so lazy. We linger over meals; we spend too long cooking; we go for long walks; we eat candies and talk and talk, but last weekend was different. Now, nine days later, I wonder how long I will think about that weekend sadly because I cannot have it anymore.
We went to the arboretum where the trees were just beginning to bud. We went to the grocery store. We went out to dinner and shared plates and amaros and forks. We went to an XFL game and touched the handrails and high-fived strangers and screamed so much that the next morning both of us sounded like we’d smoked two cigarettes too many. Maybe we already knew, somewhere deep down, that we didn’t have much time out left. The men next to us sang a song they improvised about COVID-19. Everyone at that game knew exactly what they were doing. We were reckless, and (in retrospect) maybe selfish. But we were so happy. We laughed so much. I wasn’t crying so often like I am now, terrified of something I can’t see and can’t hear and can’t make any plans for.
“Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Virginia Woolf wrote in The New Republic in 1940 about the buzz of German bombers overhead. What’s so strange about this moment is how quiet it is. Air Force One has stopped flying its helicopters over my apartment. No one is outside. There is no bustle of school children in the morning or just audible announcements from the bus line on the street. There is only fear and annoyance and hush. The disease has a quick onset, and you can harbor the illness for 10 days before it manifests any symptoms. You could already be sick. You could have the virus and never be. It’s all so unknown.
As the virus gained momentum and as it became more and more certain it would arrive here with us, I only saw two books mentioned by people who read a lot: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Severance by Ling Ma. Both books are about how life goes on after a viral disease obliterates society. After is what they are about, which implies of course that there was a Before.
I watched The Godfather this weekend, late on a Saturday night. Look at them, I thought, look at how much they’re touching each other. They are kissing each other and sharing glasses, just living normally. But already, I was aware of it. I read Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin this weekend and the main character has an affair and builds sandwiches from a common plate with her hands. She kisses her extended family on the cheeks. She was not happy at all, but how free she seemed in her specific misery. At least hers was controllable, I thought. She was simply having an affair. She was not up against an impending virus that kills 3 out of every 100 people and a system that is collapsing under its own weight.
I tried to start Severance this weekend. I haven’t read it, and now it is a clear hole in my cultural knowledge. But I don’t want it. I’m not sure I’m ready to think about a Before or an After existing just yet. I don’t want a book that is presumably a satire that could become my entire life. Of course this is only natural. No one having an affair wants to read about the emotional turmoil of one. No one struggling through a crisis of faith wants to read about someone’s loss of religion. No one fighting with their best friend wants to read about a broken relationship. And no one self-isolating from a virus wants to read about how hard the world after one can be.
We want to read about the problems we don’t have because the problems other people have always seem silly and solvable and entertaining. We want escapism some of the time but especially in a hard time. We want to remember that life is not always like this.
But if I feel is that my life is shrinking, that each day my world becomes smaller and more precarious, what is it that I want to read? If I’m scared that people will die, or be laid off, or lose their homes, do I want a book to give me reassurance? If I miss hugging my friends hello and having them over for dinner and worry constantly over how much worse this is going to feel in two months, do I want a book to give me comfort? What kind of book can abate existential dread? Distract us from anxious terror? Save us from ourselves?
I found an interesting article in the December 11, 1915 issue of The War Illustrated , A British magazine from the first World War. The article is about trench literature, but specifically it’s about Army men wanting books. It says: “No matter what officer or man was asked if there was anything he wanted, the answer was always the same: cigarettes and something to read.”
The article goes on, having talked to many members of the British army about what they are reading in the trenches and why, to give advice about what kinds of books to send the troops. “He wants books that will distract his mind completely from the immediate environment. What he does not want is fiction about war: almost any other kind of fiction he will look at, but it by no means follows that any other class will satisfy him,” it says. “He likes tales of strong domestic interest and it is worth noting that Jane Austen has taken her fragrant way into a surprising number of dug-outs.”
This, morbidly, is funny. Imagine these young men, 20s and 30s, well educated and bored as hell, sitting in a trench they dug themselves with every moment hanging in the air in front of them as if it could the last one before they die. That’s a terror you can’t confront or it will cripple you. It’s a future you can’t fathom. And so you distract yourself with what you can’t have.
The soldiers, according to this article, wanted to escape into a world just slightly different from theirs. They wanted to read about the things they wanted —love, domesticity, rigor, manners, formality, safety, security—disguised just enough by the passing of time that they were more fantasy than longing. They wanted to read novels where the biggest problems were issues of decorum and love, not death and war. They wanted to remember how small their problems had seemed before, and hope that maybe they would seem that way again.
“What is wanted there is the friendly companionship of some good and kindly book to take the mind away form the contemplation of the terrible environment, away from the sick longing for home, to the really vital things that comfort and sustain,” The War Illustrated wrote.
How do we get away from this right now? How do we read when it is so tempting to worry all day instead? It’s a small problem, wondering what to read, in comparison with everything else. But when I looked at my stacks of books on Sunday, I felt frustrated and confused. I didn’t know what to want. Everything I picked up felt wrong, and that lack of comfort from something I usually love grated against me.
That’s how I ended up with the article about the men in World War I trenches reading Jane Austen. I wanted to know what others had done in times of trial and there wasn’t much info on people reading during the pandemics because people self distancing themselves isn’t quite as heroic as fighting trench warfare (thought it is necessary). Thinking about these men reading Jane Austen, I began to look at my books differently. What I wanted was small peaceful book, something to entertain me and be beautiful and not be too slow or too dense or make me too jealous.
I picked up Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, a tiny little book about two women living on a remote island just focusing on their work and their relationship with each other. They are self-isolated as it turns out, but not because they have to be. They are choosing to be out alone together, choosing a future that is small but beautiful. Here’s an excerpt I read last night:
It’s not enough right now to choose to be happy. This isn’t a happy circumstance. It is reasonable to be worried. But it is nice to read something where the self isolation is a choice and not a mandate, where the solitude is a relief and not a cautionary move. Honestly, I may try a Jane Austen next.
Still, this passage resonated with me because that is what feels so hard about this separation, how controlled everything feels. There is no spontaneity, little spice. Intrigue will be hard to come by. But perhaps, I’m hoping, books can help. Perhaps I can find stories to surprise me and show me new things and open my mind despite this closing of the world around me. Perhaps we all can.
I’m going to be writing more about books I’m personally reading as we move through this scary and potentially extended isolated period. If you want to contribute a newsletter about something that you are reading, I do pay and I’m sure everyone would like to hear from others!
In the meantime, if you need help choosing books to read during quarantine, I’m available, and will send a list Friday to subscribers! xo
Painting is Rupert Bunny’s Woman Reading.