Quarantine complexities

May 24, 2020

Some people read to escape reality, so what happens when the reality becomes so painful that the only diversion seems redundant

Still Life with Books and a Violin by Jan Davidsz de Heem.

Remember the times when we complained about not being able to read because we were busy working, driving, watching TV, and talking? Now is not that time. Instead, after hours of talk shows, Netflix seasons and TickTock videos we still have hours to kill and a nagging awareness of the need to be productive. Unprecedented times indeed. Sheltering in place could be the perfect time to finally read, and re-read. Now is the time to join virtual book clubs and outshine that one friend who actually reads the book instead of just watching the movie. And yet, even reading seems like a tedium.

Reading for pleasure has been humanity’s cure for a mundane life. Because people read for different reasons, the number of genres and sub-genres keeps growing. Some read to stay informed and up-to-date, others to escape into impossible realms. Many fiction readers mostly read to deflect reality. For avid readers, reading is a ritual. Some perform it at random, some at fixed hours, like reading before bed or reading in the bathroom. Gradually, one learns to assign a special place and time to reading. It can be a selfish act of blocking out reality and losing oneself to stories, real or imagined. For some, reading is like taking a psychedelic drug.

So what happens when the reality becomes so painful that the only diversion seems redundant? During the initial weeks of quarantine, many things flew off the market shelves – food staples, indoor and card games, bikes, and toys among other staple items. Book sales, where they’re readily available, also soared. The concern over business giants squeezing out small publishers and booksellers momentarily eased when people started hoarding books. It seemed like a good idea then since nothing could be more conducive to reading than staying home and all by oneself. That was when Covid-19 seemed a fleeting public health crisis. Not any longer. Here you are, months after mixed news and mixed feelings. The WHO recently announced that the virus isn’t going anywhere and you might as well get used to it. And looks like even reading has failed us in this fight.

Loving books is like loving people, you can’t force yourself into it no matter how popular the writer is. These quarantine days have introduced us to a new reader in us, the one that is way too picky.

There are many reasons why written words elude us at times. When the society was fine – the status quo in politics and relationships maintained – we were anxious. Now that the society is not fine, our anxieties have ballooned like bike sales. The troubled mind in these uncertain times resists the pleasures of leisure reading. What seemed like a break from the rut initially has become an unexpected delay in going back to normal. The joy of reading has receded into a challenging exercise to focus.

The first news of shelter-in-place drove many of us scouting our private libraries to single out the un-touched books. That was promising. The second phase brought some unknown urge to follow the words on the page and keep going. Then the big pile, instead of getting smaller, kept sitting under the lamplight for days until the books were neatly placed back in the shelf. The third phase led to panic buying, a new reading list including best-sellers and recommendations from friends and family. The reading marathon came to an end at the twilight of this phase. It’s not a phase anymore. It’s the new normal. The books that were brought excitedly are still sitting on the end table, longing for a human touch. Every night they’re disappointed. And they aren’t alone.

Let’s face it, we all do it: if we can’t connect with a book we skip to the end surprisingly fast. Loving books is like loving people, you can’t force yourself into it no matter how popular the writer is. These quarantine days have introduced us to a new reader in us, one who is way too picky. But the pressure to finish is unprecedented, and an unnecessary addition to a bourgeoning list of anxieties. This is not a first-world problem, this is a bookworm problem. Then there are books which are too popular, too long but interesting. These books ask for an awful lot from the reader. Most books in this category are either non-fiction or multi-layered fiction.

Take, for example, the novel Station Eleven, a bestseller that has become the go-to apocalypse book in a pandemic. The constant movement between time and perspective, makes it an interesting read and there is an uncanny resemblance to the present situation. Set in Canada 20 years after a flu-like virus ravages Toronto eventually killing most of the population – no electricity, no transportation and no communication – the future seems a scary reminder of the havoc that a microbe is capable of wreaking. The attention apocalypse writers are getting reveals a lot about the reader’s mind today. These stories offer a premonition that makes them both chilling and cathartic, like the feeling we get when movies begin with the claim, “based on actual events.” Anything is possible.

Not all readers are created the same though. Many of your friends are still hanging in there, bragging about the numbers of books they’ve already finished. For many, this could be it. Now is the time for all introverts to come together. You will finally be left alone. Finally, it’s just you and your personal space, reveling in every blissful moment you get from news updates and work calls. Of course for people with small children, demanding jobs or compromised immunity, this is plain nonsense. The steadfast reader is still in one of the first two phases - good for her. But for many of us, the joy of reading must come with the reassurance that the society will be fine again and that we’ll go back to complaining about time constraints.

The author is a freelance writer based in the US. She can be reached at [email protected]

Quarantine complexities