The other day I was puzzling over how to get access to a friend’s mother’s thesis. I learned that it is in storage at a university library. No worries, you think, just request it at the desk. But that is a late-lamented custom. The problem is Covid: you can no longer enter this library without a student ID card, which you apparently insert into a robotic machine that has the power to approve or deny.
I desperately want to read her thesis, which is an analysis of the role of women in 19th-century literature, in a political context, and let’s face it, it may also shed light light on my literary education. My friend and I frequently borrowed books from her mother’s shelves, including 20th-century classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. One of my best T.A.’s also wrote a thesis on women in 19th-century novels, which I would love to read. And I imagine there are other brilliant dissertations there by former T.A.’s, the unsung heroes and heroines propping up university life.
And so I can’t get into the library. How has it come to this, I wonder. How very, very tired we are of all the Covid rules. Here we are, the gray-hairs and white-hairs, vaccinated and rule-abiding, but now too tired NOT to sit down in the cafe for a cup of tea. (It is the most exciting thing I’ve done in a year.) And the voice of reason asserts, If the vaccine is not adequate protection for drinking a cup of tea in an empty cafe, what is it good for? Naturally, I put on my mask after I finished. To the end we must be good role models, even after vaccination!
I am doing all the things I’ve done for a year–washing hands, wearing masks, and social-distancing-and I’ve lost the feeling of panic, which is a good thing. The number of cases is down here, perhaps because of the smooth roll-out of the vaccine. When I read about lockdown in other places, I am sad. Is the lockdown the only way to control the virus? I suppose it is. And so in and out of lockdown everyone goes. Think of it as a time to be peacefully at home…
Today I received my second dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell you how thankful I am. What a trying year this has been! We have washed our hands compulsively, worn the double mask, and tried to social-distance in a world where few have a sense of their bodies in space. The boost from the vaccine makes me feel psychologically stronger. Later, as I whooshed on my bike past a large group of people monopolizing the trail, I did not, for once, wave a cross or sprinkle Holy Water. Possibly that does not work with Covid carriers anyway. No, I hope everybody, especially that group, gets vaccinated. And, yes, I am still social-distancing, etc., ad nauseam.
If I had futuristic Covid grandchildren, raised on ventilators or masks and expert at the art of social-distancing, I would tell them the story of the vaccine. Once, when our world was overpopulated and polluted, a few manufacturers developed recipes for Covid-19 vaccines. But the vaccines were in short supply, brewed apparently in small pharmaceutical cauldrons, and only available in diminutive quantities. Governments vied for the vaccine, but the factories delivered slowly. And so in the first months of the vaccine, groups were prioritized: precedence was given to health workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents, people over 65, and people under 64 with special medical conditions. The biggest problem was getting an appointment at the government website, which is like scoring a tickets to a sold-out rock Bruce Springsteen concert. Fantastically the site opened at noon but the appointments seemed to be filled at 11:59. But persist, dear people. Eventually…
Vaccines have ended so many epidemics and pandemics. TB, polio, the flu, mumps, measles, smallpox …. There is no downside to the vaccines. The Hummel child would not have died in Little Women! Jo would not have died in Bleak House!
I have no Covid books to recommend, but here are two novels and a memoir about other epidemics and pandemics, polio, TB, and influenza. The book descriptions are taken from Goodreads and Lapham’s Quarterly.
Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve (one of my favorite writers). Just after her eleventh birthday, at the height of the frightening childhood polio epidemic, Susan Richards Shreve was sent as a patient to the sanitarium at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was a place famously founded by FDR, “a perfect setting in time and place and strangeness for a hospital of crippled children.”
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, this 1924 classic is also a meditation on societal disease. Iain Bamforth at Lapham’s Quarterly writes, “the scholar Hermann J. Weigand called it ‘the epic of disease.’ It is more accurate to say that the novel is the epic of a particular disease, tuberculosis, one which has accompanied humans at least since they started building and settling in cities. But it is also, in a broader sense, an epic of illness—an ambitious attempt to show how being ill was experienced at a particular time in a particular culture.”
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.
And so I will end the blogging year with a frivolous list. At this point you don’t need another Best Books of the Year list, but here are FIVE FAVORITES of 2020. (Click on the titles to read my reviews.)
This has been, in many ways, a terrifying year. Not THE most terrifying year, but a very dangerous one. In March when Covid-19 erupted here, I was terrified, especially for my husband, who thought the coronavirus was just the flu. I yanked him into the street when pedestrians approached us on the sidewalk. And in the first weeks of the brief shutdown (not an official lockdown), people loitered on the lawns and sidewalks, chatting and standing too close together, while I grimly walked in the street to avoid them.
I wanted to say, “The virus is airborne, people. That’s what social distancing is for!”
But they couldn’t get their heads around the airborne virus that also required washing hands. And we didn’t even have masks in those early days.
People asked, What will you do with all the leisure while working at home? Well, it wasn’t a holiday. So hard to explain…
Of course we read a lot in 2020, but no more than usual. Many have written about a lowgrade depression that interfered with reading, and in the beginning I was so distracted that I read only classics. There was much reading of Chekhov, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, James M. Cain, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. Did I have no time to waste? Well, I would not go that far, but I needed well-wrought words to hold my attention. It was an antidote to daily reading about what was happening in China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and of course the U.S. I was sick from reading about Covid.
And then the public libraries closed.
It did feel in those early days as if the government used Covid to deny books and knowledge to citizens. That conspiracy theory doesn’t work during a pandemic, but I do read a lot of science fiction, so it crossed my mind. The closing of libraries and schools has been an unfortunate consequence of managing the pandemic. Even for a stay-at-home, staying home gets old.
Somehow we thought the public libraries would stay open, because they are community centers these days. The avid readers, the lonely, the elderly, the poor, and the homeless gather to read newspapers, use the computers, photocopy documents, and borrow books. The library book clubs are the refuge of middle-aged women, and the lectures provide mental stimulation for the “seniors” (now that’s a ghastly sobriquet!). It is also where you pick up your special dark glasses for viewing the eclipse.
And so when they slammed the library doors in mid-March we were shocked. Mind you, I don’t consider librarians social workers, but surely with the appropriate plexiglass barriers, limited browsing, and their many, many self-checkout machines, they could stay open a few hours a day. Okay, curbside pickup was better than nothing. And then the libraries opened again briefly in October. Too briefly. The number of Covid cases and deaths dramatically rose, and they slammed the doors again.
Naturally, we are not completely isolated. We have many books. And we have our blogs, our online book clubs, our Novellas in November and our Women in Translation Months, our Zoom (shudder!), and other virtual substitutes.
But if I lived alone I might indeed go bonkers. So would I have ignored the restrictions and go out? Well, not entirely, but I might have gone shopping more often. I haven’t been to a box store in months. I miss them.
I do envy those writers who don’t believe Covid is dangerous. Some of them think the numbers are nothing! I do think the danger is real, and will continue to wear a mask after I get my vaccine, until the infectious disease experts tell us we’re safe. But guess who’s probably having more fun? The non-believers (unless they get sick, and I hope they do not)!
So Happy New Year! Be safe, stay home, drink your chosen drink (I recommend Darjeeling tea), wash your hands, wear a mask, and celebrate virtually!