People of the Book
I have spent much of the past year in search of recommendations. Recommendations about whether or not to stay home; whether to purchase a mask; whether or not to send the children to school once it reopened; whether it might be safe to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in the midst of a pandemic; whether it might be safe to canvass for candidates; whether children could see their grandparents; recommendations for what gadgets and trinkets to purchase that might temporarily assuage the howling grief and fear that was part and parcel of being an American in the year 2020, and now in 2021 as well. But more than anything, the recommendations I wanted most in our year of COVID were for books to read.
The days were simultaneously empty and full, crammed full of the minutiae of managing a household and a job and a life, with endless tasks to complete (would there ever, truly, be an end to the recycling, or the laundry?) and huge voids of time left to fill by all the pursuits, hobbies, and appointments — teaching a classroom of students, seeing family, dinner with friends, movies, concerts, theater — that had suddenly, irreversibly vanished. And so books, always the solution to all of life’s minor miseries and small indignities, were a salve once more.
I pored over lists of past winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award for books I hadn’t yet read, like Paulette Jiles’ “News of the World.” I read the By the Book column in the Times Book Review every Saturday to see if that week’s guest had any intriguing recommendations. And I scoured Molly Young’s effervescent monthly book-recommendation email for Vulture, which led me to masterful novels like Charles Portis’ “True Grit” and Charles Willeford’s “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” I kept lengthy lists of books to read on my Notes app. I ordered more books via Alibris over the last year than I had in the last five years combined. Small polyvinyl packages would arrive many days, with a well-worn paperback nestled inside, and another geometry question to solve: how to fit this latest volume into my groaning bookshelves?
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My older son had taken to carrying Minecraft guides and oversized kids’ history tomes around the apartment like totems, and perhaps books were amulets of a kind, there to ward off bad luck and ill fortune. Perhaps we all felt that if we had the right book, the right library, we would feel the comfort that was so sorely lacking in this pandemic year.
Sometimes, that comfort took the form of a series of scabrous, vivid letters home from 1980s London, as in Nina Stibbe’s wondrous “Love, Nina”; other times, it was the power of a singular voice, insistent that you listen to uncomfortable truths, as in Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s fiery, anguished, sneaky-funny “The Undocumented Americans.” Books had access to a mystical knowledge that was otherwise entirely unavailable. My friend Alena Graedon’s novel “The Word Exchange,” about a mysterious sickness called word flu that rockets around the world and leaves a hushed, plague-ridden city in its wake, felt oddly prescient when I read it last April.
Most of all, I wanted stories to take me away, to transport me somewhere else. I wanted books to point the way to a tunnel that would lead outside this moment, that would tamp down on my incessant refreshing of Twitter and my fearful scanning of the Times and the Post for the next fearful indignity of the Trump administration. In a year of masks and aerosols and an airborne disease that would take the lives of more than 500,000 Americans — more than the population of Atlanta — books were air. If I had one piece of advice to share right now, it would be this: Find a book that speaks to you. Give yourself the time and space to enjoy it, and let it share its secrets with you. It will keep you going.
I was forever in search of the next book to read because it was one controllable element of a life over which we had all lost any sense of control. We did not know how much longer it would be until some semblance of order would be restored, or what it might look like once it did. And if I feel more hope today than I have in some time — due to a new president, a massive increase in daily vaccinations, new legislation intended to serve the needs of suffering Americans — we know that normal is still a way off. One year in, all we can do is reflect on what we have lost, and what we hope to gain again.
In recent weeks, I felt myself hitting another in a series of pandemic walls. Perhaps it was the impending first anniversary of lockdown, perhaps it was the way winter in New York always drags on for a month longer than it feels like it should, but I felt restless and sad, and I wondered how the other people in my life, who felt so distant from me, might be handling it. I sent friends some beloved books, because books had always comforted me in times of maximal turbulence, and because I hoped that what they had done for me could be recreated for others. I have spent a year staring at others’ often-bare bookshelves via Zoom, and know that one person’s magic trick is another’s lump of lifeless paper. But books had saved my life more times than I could count, and I hoped some of their power might rub off on those I loved.
Reading Jiles’ “News of the World,” I came across one passage that stopped me in my tracks. “Maybe life is just carrying news,” she wrote. “Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.” The idea of carrying the news, of surviving and carrying the news, spoke to me. And the endless hunt for the next book to read was, for me at least, a crucial spoke in surviving the last year. What is a book, anyway, other than a receptacle that carries the news into the future, where someone else might stumble across it and be, for a single moment, soothed?