In search of comforting, quarantine reads…

April 12, 2020

Follow a reader’s search to find a book that brings her peace and tranquillity amidst the COVID-19 lockdown

When, in true Hermione fashion, you have read your way out of every difficult situation, it appears as if whatever the issue may be, books are always the answer. Be it the inhumane punishments at the hand of a cruel principal, highs and lows of first love, death of a loved one or a battle of survival against an enemy as elusive as the COVID-19, isn’t there a character somewhere, in some story, that has experienced it all before, and lived to tell the tale? Books, in their own way, have never let us down in providing order, as John Peck and Martin Coyle would say in their introductory literature course, in a universe that is chaotic, ever-changing and ever so confusing.

Or so I thought when weeks ago, I was approached to write a piece on comforting quarantine reads. Haven’t we all got our desert island picks? Stories that we have been selecting all through our lives to find a sanctuary in when we are far removed from this familiar world of ours - the way we are just now. I ran a quick survey on Twitter, WhatsApped friends and family to find what everyone else would recommend and gathered together a huge mix of fiction and nonfiction that everyone else was devouring.

It appears that survival stories such as Alive by Piers Paul Read, The Hero and the Crown by Robin Mckinley or fantasies such as the good old The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, Harry Potter series by JK Rowling and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, are the number one choice, followed by quarantine themed reads such as The Plague by Albert Camus, A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Inventory by Carmen Maria Machado. Others seem to be immersed in multitudes of productivity and self-help books, finding comfort in knowing How to be a Bawse by Lilly Singh, learning to crochet/knit/sew/cook or discovering The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up by Marie Kondo.

These are all gripping reads, one way or the other, so when I write this, I am not blaming the books, but among all these people who are finding comfort in one book or another are also those, myself included, who are in a reading slump so deep that there doesn’t seem to be a way out. I tried my hand at different genres, tried reading a combination of both never-touched and well-loved and oft-read books from my library, but it’s when even Harry Potter was not making sense, not even in its now freely accessible Stephen Fry’s rendition (Audible), I knew there was a problem, and it was partly in me.

Wowing not to succumb to the lures of Netflix, the mind had to be engaged somehow for sanity’s preservation, and my first step was joining my youngest nephew and nieces in their games. Little did I know that in reassembling one of their broken toys, I’d find a way around my dilemma. It happened pretty much by chance; I was going through the directions in the toy manual when I wondered that perhaps the reason no book was working was that I wasn’t supposed to just read anything random, I was instead supposed to consult the instruction manual that Allah ta’ala had given us all along. Like many of us, I had come across this verse from surah Ar-Rad on numerous occasions, “Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do, hearts find rest” (28), but will my heart, so used to finding comfort in the words of worldly authors and their creations, a heart, so sanam ashna (Bang e Dara, 169) as Iqbal would say, ever find comfort in the words of the Author of all the universe? I wondered.

Unsure where to start, I decided to virtually attend one of the Therapy through Quran sessions by Alimah Sobia Kamaluddin Ahmed that well-meaning folks keep WhatsApping me about. As I joined the audio link, the session had already started and the speaker was talking about the need to balance our fears (COVID-19 related or others) with hope with reference to the verse of surah Al Baqarah where Allah ta’ala categorically mentions that He is going to test us all, but then there is mercy, and blessing within the most testing times for those who patiently persevere:

And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided. (2:155-157)

I have been transfixed by words before, but there was something so super special, so deeply personal, yet universal in this verse as Sobia Apa recited it, explaining it with references to the struggles of prophets but also their manner of dealing with all that befell them, with both tawakkul (absolute reliance on Allah) and asbab (practical measures) that I felt instantly drawn, experiencing that ‘‘we’re not alone’’ sentiment that CS Lewis attributes to reading.

What followed afterward, in Netflixian terms, was a binge listen to other available sessions, of hers, and a few others, which helped me realign my focus from the panic mode to a state of tawakul, understanding that like the happiness that can be found in the darkest of times, there is khair or blessing, even in the most testing times, be it in the form of reduction of sins (Sahi Al Bukhari, Book 75, Hadith 1, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol 7, Book 70, Hadith 544), or the reward of martyrdom, (Sahi Al Bukhari, Book 76, hadith 49, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol 7, Book 71, Hadith 630), as long as we, as Dumbledore would say, remember to turn on the light. If that light comes from a source hitherto unread, it’s okay, because, like all readers, we know that when the timing is right, we somehow do find the book that makes sense when all others fail. And that’s what makes it comforting for us.

The writer is a Distinction holder in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, UK and currently works as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore. She tweets at @readlikematilda

Reader’s search to find a book that brings peace, tranquillity amid COVID-19 lockdown