“Let’s not distance ourselves from books. They will keep us company and connect us back to people, back to society.” – Ibram X. Kendi
I was in the middle of a doctoral program in Los Angeles when my father’s illness took a turn for the worst and I dropped everything to spend the last three weeks with him in Houston. My sisters joined and for the first time in about 10 years, we were a whole family living under the same roof. We did everything we could to make our father comfortable and in as little pain as possible.
Our world became very routine, filled with repetitive motions and emotional handwringing as we took care of the person who took care of us most of his life. We didn’t go out much, except to buy essential items and to take walks around the neighborhood where my parents lived. We had each other for consolation, but we also had lots of time on our own to deal with our feelings of fear, sorrow, and sheer lack of control. My sisters had their way of coping. One spent hours on the phone with her new boyfriend. The other wrote in a journal and watched television. For me, I turned to books for relief as I often did when the world became overwhelming.
I read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, a short and simply written story about a shepherd in the French Alps who takes up the daily task of planting one hundred acorns in order to reforest his desolate surroundings. I re-read parts of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and some of the sentences brought me right back to being thirteen and reading it for the first time. If I had my Nancy Drew books during this difficult period, I would’ve cried as if meeting an old friend after a long spell.
Each crisis calls for different books
This pandemic that has put a third of the world’s population in some kind of lockdown is a crisis like none other. For those of us lucky to be able to stay home and follow social distancing, the days can start to melt into one another.
I found it hard to read at first. It was difficult to focus and concentrate. I was reading lots of news feeds and statistics in an addictive loop. Then I read The Faraway and Nearby by Rebecca Solnit and was struck by her words.
“Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons by them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.” – Rebecca Solnit
We likely all feel lost right now as we confine ourselves to our own small world. The stories that helped me see difficulty from another perspective come back to me. I think about Jess and Leslie creating their “secret hideout” in a fantastical world in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Their unlikely friendship makes them inseparable from each other as they let their imaginations run wild. I still feel the loss after reading the book and learning that life really is full of magic and sadness.
Then there’s Francie Nolan growing up very poor in the early 20th century in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The line that stayed with me in that book: “Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there from the grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.” These books offered me at a young age a wider view of the world beyond my own, something that I could use more of right now.
Books that save us
There are some poignant books about the healing quality of literature in navigating through life’s challenging moments. The memoir All The Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth is an homage to her father whose death propels the author to seek comfort in Woolf’s masterpiece To The Lighthouse. Smyth moves back and forth from stories about her father and her own New England childhood to Woolf’s Cornish shores and the rambling Ramsay family as they spend a vacation together. I read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in college and was moved but not much more. It was in reading Smyth’s life-long love for this book that reminded me of the lifeline that books throw us when we need it most.
It’s hard to know what books are right for this moment of crisis. Our moods will change as the state of the world changes. Books will not save us from the pandemic. However, books and the stories they contain will transport us for awhile and save us in big and small ways from isolation, sadness, fear and boredom. For now, I’m finding solace in books inspired by my literary touchstones. I’m reading The Street by Ann Petry, an under-the-radar classic about a young black woman, Lutie Johnson, and her struggle to raise her son in a fourth floor walkup in 1940s Harlem.
I’m losing myself in Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning book, When You Reach Me, a story about friends, Miranda and Sal, mystery notes, and an absolutely wonderful account of the 1970s game show The $20,000 Pyramid. It’s reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time, and not only because Miranda reads and loves this book in the story. I’m re-reading In the Distance by Hernan Diaz, a profound exploration of adventure and loneliness in the story of a Swedish immigrant in search of his brother, and ultimately himself, as he crosses the vast landscapes of desert and mountain in 19th-century America.
Whatever book gives you comfort, you should reach for it now. If there’s a book you’ve been wanting to read if only you had the time, now is the time. I just joined author Yiyun Li who is leading an online book club to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, all 1,200 pages, at the pace of 15 pages a day. It’s absolutely feasible. And don’t be afraid (well you can be a little) of reading “plague books” during a pandemic, even if The Plague by Albert Camus, Station Eleven by Emily St John John Mandel, or Severance by Ling Ma will seem eerily similar to what’s going on right now. It might be reassuring, if not completely comforting, to know that humanity has been through this before, many times over, and survived. If all else fails, some Calvin and Hobbes always does the trick for me with the right dose of humor, wisdom, and mischief, even when the world seems to be spinning out of control.