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How Do We Read When Words Fail Us?

On the value of books and reading in a dangerous time.

Neon Sign that says BOOKS

Last week, I finally finished reading a book.

And that this is even remarkable speaks volumes about the strange times we're all navigating right now. Because usually I finish books in the way that most people finish wearing pants at the end of the day, or in the way that one might finish eating their lunch. Usually it's easy, automatic, even reflexive. I read therefore I am, but last week I didn't, and I wasn't, scrolling social media feeds and news blogs instead: refresh, refresh. When will there be good news?

Last week, it seemed like words were failing on all fronts, in print, online, and especially in my head. As I was reading every bit of journalism I could get my hands on in search of answers, in search of certainty, for all the chaos to coalesce into something that made sense, but there was nothing, only noise, and fear, and questions. What is going to happen next?

And I couldn't read. Which didn't make sense when I had all the time in the world, and all the books at my fingertips, a to-be-read pile that was taller than my child, and access to e-books for days. I'd even had two new releases delivered from my local indie bookshop straight to my front door, which should have been the best thing that had ever happened to me, but the books sat unopened on a chair in my hall. Every time I sat down to read, I picked up my phone instead. My phone, which now demands a daily disinfecting, but see, maybe something had happened while I was reading half a paragraph in the novel I kept being unable to not put down? Had there been a breakthrough, a shift. A vaccine, a cure? Refresh, refresh.

As a student of literary narrative, I am accustomed to resolution, and so to be suspended in this space of uncertainty is strange and uneasy. If this were a story I were marking up with a pen, I'd leave some notes in the margins: pacing lags, needs momentum. Apparently a whole bunch of you out there are reading War and Peace, which is admirable and impressive, but I am far too busy lying on the floor having heart palpitations right now, and loading new posts on the Guardian's Coronavirus liveblog. Rising death tolls, hospitals at their breaking points, pasta aisles with their shelves bare. When will there be fusilli? 

Crocodile Dundee

My central accomplishment of last week—apart from getting through it at all—was watching the abominably awful Crocodile Dundee on Netflix. I went to bed that night and slept until morning for the first time in days, waking up with the revelation that if it's escape I'm craving right now, it's stories that are going to deliver it, and probably better via books than mediocre 1980s' movies. Even though the world of books seems as uncertain as everything else right now, with bookstores struggling on margins that were already slim even before we all went into lockdown, publishers trying to operate as usual in a moment that is anything but, with release dates being pushed back, cancelled events, and the lack of knowing that all of us are facing in regards to everything.

I don't know what's going to happen next, but I do know that I've been meaning to reread Kate Atkinson's Jackson's Brodie series since her latest release last June. (I also know that 49thShelf is a Canadian books website, and that Atkinson's work does not fit the bill, but the idea of borders and nations seem to matter less than it did just a couple of weeks ago, and this is the story of how I found my way back to reading, so I have to tell it straight. I promise you, there are plenty of Canadian books before me, and I'll be sharing these with you too.) And in an ordinary spring, I would never have found the time, for the indulgence of rereading, for reading for pleasure, to be reading in the bathtub on a Wednesday afternoon, but there I was, and it made everything better.

Reading Case Histories, which I first read 16 years ago, a book that is dark and violent, but also shockingly funny and brilliant in its energy. I was myself again: a person who reads. And in a world that's askew, this tiny detail is such a tether—to comfort, to peace, to hope. Every turn of the page a refreshment, forward motion, when nothing else can offer such a thing. It's how I'm doing my relatively easy job of taking care of myself and staying sane and out of the way so that front line workers can offer care to those who need it the most.

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