In the early days of social distance, during my first weekends crammed into my house, I struggled to read the big, ambitious books that I had squirreled away for all this time alone. I bought Ducks, Newburyport, a whopper of a novel that’s refreshing thanks simply to its structure. The novel is written as one long stream of consciousness, and reading it feels removing my brain from my head and temporarily residing in someone else’s. In small sections, it is perfect, but like anything else I attempt, it gets old. Desperate for other options, I turned to friends for recommendations of literature that would solve my restlessness: big, honking books, heavy on plot and biblical in length, but easy enough to read that doing so would not feel like work.
As more and more states issued mandates to residents to stay indoors as best as they can, various websites across this great internet churned out reading lists for the pandemic, as if were a new season in the publishing cycle, sandwiched in between fall’s ambitious, serious novels and summer’s frothy pap. But the best quarantine reading list isn’t prescriptive, because everyone is experiencing this moment differently and so the books (or other distractions) that work for some will not work for others.
Across Twitter and my Instagram feed, shots of stacked books proliferate, as part of the larger impulse to share everything now because there’s nothing else to do, but also, maybe, as a bit of a brag. Dramatic declarations, public or otherwise, about what we will read during this time are just a part of the larger push for productivity that is becoming more and more insistent. But while using this time to finally read Infinite Jest or to buckle down and work through Tolstoy might sound good in theory, in practice, it’s not necessarily the most soothing or enjoyable course of action. (Of course, if Tolstoy is part of your intellectual diet outside of a global crisis, I urge you, go forth.)
The big long book for this moment has to be the right kind of book, and that decision is a personal call. Maybe for some, The Decameron is just the ticket, but for others—for me—the thought of reading anything that requires that much of my attention is yet another task that I will fail. High ambitions are generally useful, but ambition crumbling in the face of a larger crisis is also okay, and, honestly, very normal. Feel free to lay down your copy of The Power Broker and pick up some trash. Pick a book that you will finish, if completion thrills you, and it doesn’t matter what that book is. Anything that works right now is a nice salve.
Since every book I have picked up since this shit started has evaded me and failed to capture my attention, I am drawn to childhood favorites. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, upon an adult revisit, is extraordinarily anti-Semitic, but simply reading something predictable was enough to quiet my brain. An Anne of Green Gables omnibus beckons, but really, any of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s fiction works in a pinch, if only for her lush descriptions of Prince Edward Island’s verdant flora.
Re-reading books is a pleasant exercise because it is so wonderful to simply know how something is going to end. Maybe part of the reason concentration is so difficult is that when you read a new book, there’s no guarantee that you’ll like it or that the book will end in any way that is satisfying or worthwhile. That, of course, is the contract with any media and also largely the point. Committing to yet another uncertain situation with an unknown ending when everything else is wobbly is just too much to ask.