Like many bookish couples, my wife and I read in bed before falling asleep. Now and then (again, like many others), one of us will read aloud, usually something especially beautiful or unexpectedly timely. But even in these … early? Middle? Certainly not late, alas … days of COVID-19 living, we were both taken aback when Anna came across this passage the other night: “By mid-summer, as the blistered and jagged hills sprouted forests of fly-blown crucified cadavers, the city within was tormented by a sense of impending doom. … Armed gangs prowled for food. … People denounced each other as hoarders and traitors … loved ones die[d].”
We both sighed – not at yet another arresting evocation of plague-time strife in a big city, but at its source: page six of Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Anna had decided on this 650-page book as her new bedtime tome because, like many serious book people, she wants to make more time for reading these days and was looking for a subject that had nothing to do with COVID-19. And although there was much else to talk about, even just in the early pages of the book, we exclusively focused on what felt most pertinent to our present moment. This raises a troubling question: Are we already so rattled and addled by COVID-19 that we can only read for things that feel relevant to it, even when telling ourselves we’re turning to books for imaginative refuge and rescue?
As it has done to so much else, COVID-19 has radically affected our reading lives. In the earliest days, I noticed a paralyzing circularity had set in: It felt urgent and necessary to read exclusively about the disease, stifling my thinking and imagining life. I desperately wanted to read about absolutely anything else, but doing so felt decadent and irresponsible. I’ve since figured out that plague literature offers the strongest possible curative for the quarantining of our reading lives, because it means both reading and not reading about it. There’s something purposeful and exhilarating in finding and forging the connections yourself, through old and new books about the personal and civilizational wreckage wrought by unchecked illness – whether it’s Albert Camus (The Plague), Daniel Defoe (A Journal of a Plague Year), Omar el Akkad (American War), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Jeff Vandermeer (the Southern Reach trilogy), Eugene Vodolazkin (Laurus), Sandra Newman (The Country of Ice Cream Star), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven) or Daniel Kehlmann (Tyll), among many others.
Two works in particular come to mind. Camus’s The Plague has quickly become the de facto source and cipher for reading our way through this moment (and also a sturdy peg for countless essays and columns). When we thought to begin reading it in my household, I realized my copy was in my office at the university. However convinced one might be about the essential services provided by literature, it’s nevertheless hard to argue this would justify a special trip through the emptied city. Buying or borrowing a copy wasn’t immediately possible, since bookstores and libraries had already closed and, like so much else these days, the novel was backordered by many weeks online. So now, after lunch every day, the family gathers around the Sonos to listen to an audio edition. The timetable charts my wife has made for our four daughters, so they can each organize their new homebound-schooling activities, now list THE PLAGUE in child’s handwriting as the 1 p.m. activity.
When I’m not Zooming or Teaming, I join them – although I spend more time wondering how my children will describe this experience to their grandchildren, rather than actually following Camus’s story. I think my focus veers that way in part because this time through, I’m not engaged at all by Camus’s novel. He certainly evokes the time and place of a plague – with all the accompanying images and arguments about what’s happening and what’s to be done about it – with stark and unstinting power. But there’s just not enough space between the novel and what’s happening immediately around us for my imagination to do anything good, whether it’s seeking identification or escape. Instead, it feels like the only reason to read The Plague is to confirm what I’m already thinking, imagining and worrying about. What a terrible waste of the liberties inherent to a vital literary work and to a flourishing reading life.
I’ve had better luck with the other major work of Western plague literature, The Decameron. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the book in his mid-thirties and set it a few years earlier, in 1348, when his native Florence was suffering through the Black Plague. (The illness might have killed upward of 60 per cent of the city’s population, “anywhere from fifty to eighty thousand people,” according to Boccaccio’s latest major English-language translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn.) In both premise and enactment – 10 young nobles leave their pestilential, death-ridden city to wait out the illness with 10 days of storytelling in rural isolation – The Decameron does two very important things. First, it provides an array of short tales that, whether provocative, bawdy, funny, tragic or moralizing (and, in many cases, a combination), draw you away from the here and now to strange and inviting points elsewhere, as all good stories should. Second, the very premise of the storytelling, which is reliably evoked at the start of each tale, never lets you forget the main reason the characters are spending their days this way. In other words, more so than any other work of plague literature, The Decameron is a source for imaginative refuge-seeking that simultaneously models what that best involves. “We should go and stay on one of our various country estates,” announces Pampinea, who is soon elected “Queen” of the friends’ storytelling realm, “having as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way.” In Boccaccio’s treatment, telling and listening to stories is the best way to achieve this kind of balance: a disciplined and intentional distraction from death.
We are, the great many of us, not waiting out COVID-19 with wealthy friends on country estates. Instead, we’re leading closed-in lives in our homes, tensed for the latest numbers of confirmed cases, the lists of closures and lost jobs. Reading at the right remove from COVID-19, whatever that might mean in your present situation, seems like the best way to sustain and be sustained by books right now. The success of such efforts depends on cultivating a certain kind of acceptance. In my case, the next time something unexpectedly viral sheds from my family’s nighttime reading – whether it’s Jerusalem for Anna or Middlemarch for me, or The Chronicles of Narnia, Under Wildwood, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis for my daughters – we can take it in without our imaginative lives being overtaken by it. After all, that’s happening more than enough in the rest of our lives these days.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as Principal of St. Michael’s College.
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