The Plague Notebook:  A Privileged Boredom & Lockdown Reading

Staying home is a small price to pay for safety. It is like having a bodyguard, only it’s not human:  a house, a rented room, an apartment, a geodesic dome, whatever shelter we have.  Here’s a typical day in the spring of Covid-19:  we read our books, check the news, watch TV, check the news, clean the house, check the news. It is a privileged boredom. Think of the homeless.  Think of the emptying food banks.

But everyone is in shape, finally! Whenever we’re claustrophobic, we go outside.  The parks, of course, are closed, so when a friend snuck into an empty park to play Frisbee,  the police sent him/her home. And here’s a  very strange story: a mall outside of Omaha claims it will open next week.  I joked, “We’ll be there.” 

Business Insider says, “More than 13,000 Americans died last week from COVID-19, surpassing past weekly averages for other common causes of death like heart disease and cancer.”  

Let us hope coronavirus goes away soon.

Fortunately there are still good books to read. 

ANTHONY BURGESS’S ENDERBY NOVELS.  This quartet of comical novels, Inside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s Dark Lady,  is delightfully quirky.  I urge you to read them if you need light relief.  Burgess tells the story of Enderby, a dyspeptic English poet who writes poetry in the lavatory, frequently using the toilet paper roll as a pencil holder and writing on toilet paper.   In the first novel, he is fatally seduced away from his lavatory writing by an ambitious woman, Vesta Bainbridge, whom he unhappily marries–it ends badly.  In  the second novel, Outside Enderby, which I just reread, he has supposedly been cured of poetry by a psychiatrist:  he has metamorphosed into a bartender named Hogg.  When a pop star, Yod Crewsley,  celebrates publishing a book of poetry at a party at the bar, Enderby is astonished to realize the poems are plagiarized:  he had composed them while living with Vesta, who is now married to the pop star.  And then a disgruntled former manager shoots Crewsley, leaving Enderby with the smoking gun.  His flight from the police to Tangier is hialrious, and at least his poetic muse speaks again in the muddle that follows.

The third book is equally funny, as I remember, but I am pretty sure I haven’t read the fourth. It is Burgess’s convoluted, poetic language that makes Enderby stand out from other satires about writers.  And, let’s face it, what is a funnier subject than a poet?  I do love Enderby.

Enderby’s poems are stunning, too.

LOUISE ERDRICH’S new novel, THE NIGHT WATCHMAN,  is partly political, partly a poignant tribute to the resilience of American Indian identity.  Inspired by the life of  Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a chief of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, it tells the story of  a tribe in crisis and their political organization to prevent Congress from disbanding them and taking their land in the 1950s.   

There are two main threads: the hero, Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman at a factory, organizes the fight against termination. Thomas is charming, funny, shrewd, and spiritual:  he has encounters with a snowy owl, a ghost, and spirtis in the sky.   The other thread follows Pixie (Patrice), Thomas’s niece, a very smart high school graduate who is a skilled worker at a factory and determined to rise through the ranks.   But life is a struggle:  she supports her mother and younger brother financially, and plays the masculine role in the family, chopping wood, hunting game, and contriving to clothe and fee them.  The whole family grieves over the disappearance of Patrice’s older sister Vera, who has disappeared in Minneapolis. The fight against Congress and the search for Vera are skillfully intertwined.

Gorgeous, lyrical writing, resilient characters, and a narrative interwoven with magic realism, ghosts, and unexpected events.

Are You a Refugee from February?

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

You see, you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
Tom Petty

Are you a refugee from February?

I’ve devised a perfect escape plan.

WHAT TO READ:  It’s cold, so go South. The critics and I esteem the elegant prose of James Wilcox, whose nine quirky novels, set in the mythic town of Tula Springs, Louisiana, never fail to make me laugh.  In Modern Baptists, the first in the series, Mr. Pickens, the middle-aged manager of Sonny Boy Bargain Store, is stoically facing what may seem insolvable personal problems.  His half-brother, F.X., a failed actor and drug dealer, has been discharged from prison and has moved into Mr. Pickens’s den; Mr. Pickens has a crush on his  new employee, Toinette, and steals her watch as a joke, but now she has reported it; he has a mole shaped like the state of New Jersey, which may be cancerous; and his mother, a senile resident of Azalea Manor, mistakes him for a gentleman caller and also asks him to install a Coke machine in her room. Wilcox writes spare, witty, perfectly-shaped sentences, and the humor in Modern Baptists is endearingly cozy, as well as offbeat. 

WHERE TO GO:  I like a good travel magazine this time of year. At Forbes, Katherine Parker-Magyar writes about “The Top Six Travel Destinations To Visit In Winter 2020.”  From Hummingbird Highways in Central America to snowcapped deserts in Central Anatolia, read on for the top six destinations you should visit this upcoming winter.”  The photographs are  heavenly. 

WHAT TO WEAR:  Naturally, it’s best to wear timeless classics:  turtleneck, cozy sweater, corduroy pants, moccasin slippers.  The  look says “Preppy Refugee from the ’80s,” but you’ll stay warm.  And you might try slightly more fashionable outerwear:   swirl out the door in a stylish Shawl Wool Blend Winter Coat (I saw it at People magazine), or that less complicated garment, the Pea Coat. I bought my pea coat at the Army-Navy store, but you can get yours at The Gap or L. L. Bean. (Consult The Preppy Handbook for more fashion advice.)

Biking in the snow.

WHAT TO DO:  So many fun things to do!  Cross-country skiing (fun, I hear, though I can’t keep my balance)! Bicycling in the snow (I did this years ago, but it’s much safer now because you can buy special snow tires)!  Check out Time’s list of “the 11 New Books You Should Read in February” and tread one of them.  Or binge-watch Black Books, my favorite bookish TV series.  Then there’s always Mahjong…

So you can be a refugee from February!

Should We Believe Surveys? The Decline of Reading

Reading is in a decline, according to a survey by Pew Research. The NEA and Gallup polls have done similar surveys with the same results.  I am reluctant to believe them, because I know so many bookish people.  That said, the findings fit the dystopian gloom of the country.

Over the years I’ve known many ardent readers, but even more non-readers.  In my experience, few people continue to read after college.  The average English graduate immerses himself/herself in celebrity biographies and pop psychology, which I don’t call “reading.” And then on the opposite track are the brilliant writers who rarely read except for work.

If you’re reading this, you probably love reading.  You are unlikely otherwise to make your way to Thornfield Hall, the manse of Mr. Rochester. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Jane Eyre, let me refresh your memory: Jane, a plain but exceptionally witty governess, fell in love with the Byronic hero, Mr.  Rochester, who, it turned out, kept a mad wife in the attic.  He liked to compartmentalize his women.

It was indeed very Gothic at Thornfield Hall.  

Why do we women readers love Gothics so much?

We all know reading can be a thorny path. Non-readers misunderstand readers, especially us novel readers, because they consider us idle.  Why don’t you get some fresh air?  (Where is this fresh air, I often wonder.)   Or, in a brutal relative’s words, “You’re a non-participant in life.” Now that was a blow.

Ah, the fresh air fiends.  Sitting on the lawn looking at their phones.  That’s magic, isn’t it?  And then there are the lawn mowers, the chainsaw wielders, the leaf blowers, etc.  The air is polluted.

Mind you, I spend a lot of time outdoors, though I always take a book along. I used to ride my bike 20-30 miles every weekend with my husband.   One summer I lolled on benches during our breaks reading Constance Garnett’s translations of Turgenev on my Sony Reader. On a 90-degree day, I sat grouchily on a trail, reading Rudin and refusing to go on until my husband fetched Gatorade and power bars from a convenience store.  These days, I take shorter rides with him, because I got tired of the filthy porta-potties along the way!  

Dear Reader, I married a reader.For a short time, we  even had a lunchtime book club. We alternated reading Joseph Conrad and Edith Wharton. 

And  recently we divvied up the 2019 Booker Prize winners: he thought Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was just okay; I considered parts of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments brilliant, but I’m going to pass on whether it deserved the prize,  since I didn’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale first.

And so reading is in a decline…or not.  Surveys have a lot to tell us, but they may not be 100% true. In reading, women seem to have an advantage over men.  According to Pew Research in 2019, women read more books than men. “The average woman read 14 books in the past 12 months, compared with the nine books read by the average man, a statistically significant difference. The median number of books read by women was five, compared with a median of three for men, which was not statistically significant.”

I guess that’s one up for us women, isn’t it?  

It’s only a survey.

As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Time, Time, Time: Read Less & Get a Life!

Time, time time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities.—“A Hazy Shade of Winter,” by Paul Simon

It is nearly the Winter Solstice–my favorite winter holiday.  I much prefer it to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.   

Tonight it is bitterly cold, though, with a thin layer of snow just fallen, lights blinking on the battery-operated tinsel tree, cats batting at ornaments, and the scent of jasmine tea wafting through the house.  So here I am on the couch, cozily scribbling about two tenses, the past and future as I wait for the future brighter days.  (The present rarely exists.  It’s much too shattering.)

 Here are my plans for the Winter Solstice:  Read less!  Do something!  Save the environment!  Act now!  

Or maybe I should do that the day after the Solstice.

Mins you, reading is my life.  It is action.  It expands our world, shapes who we are, and helps us survive the worst of times.  It  is also a drug: the best books lift us above the hysteria of the twenty-first century.  I especially love the Victorians, who take their ethical dilemmas seriously, and interweave morals with the action of the plot. I personally can shrug off the end of the world if I have a copy of Bleak House. I’m stocking up on Victorians for 2030, the year climate change becomes irreversible.  

As so often happens, I have read almost too much (150 books) this year, but I have also discarded tomes that started promisingly and then fizzled.  I have a dismaying pile of partially-read new books on the nightstand:  I gave up on most of these after one-third.  When I tell myself to read less, I want the time back I lost on those books.  

“Reading less” is a bizarre resolution, I know. I see a lot of:  “Read harder!” “Read faster!” “Do the Goodreads Challenge!” That is so darling, so peppy, so optimistic, and yet so wrong.  I have no team spirit.  Yet it does kill time making checklists, photographing book hauls, scribbling in Planners, reorganizing TBRs, and photographing cats sitting adorably beside piles of books (my cats are not photogenic).  And I consider those activities “reading less,” so I’m allowed to do them, even though I don’t join the team.

We who live at the end of the world don’t have much team spirit.  Icebergs melting, impeachment hearings, the rollback of women’s rights, defunding Planned Parenthood, building the wall, Facebook scandals… we are exhausted.  It is an angry age. Sometimes we wonder as we look around, What have humans contributed to the earth?  Well…  I’m not sure humans have done much.  They can’t work together for change.  It has been a chaotic year.   But then we can’t see the future.   Hope on, hope ever!  

Well, it is officially tomorrow (after midnight).  So I guess I’d better get ready to save the world.

And here is the video of Simon and Garfunkel singing “A Hazy Shade of Winter”

It’s in My Head: How Many Hours a Day Should I Read?

This afternoon I spent two hours reading a book.  You know how I know?  It’s the influence of the internet. Everybody tracks the numbers online:  calories, carbs, steps, and, most important, hours spent reading.  They use apps; I’m doing it in my head.

Since I got Wifi, I have read hundreds of thousands of book posts and professional reviews. Some are brilliant, most disappointing. I thought I would like being acquainted with all these readers.  But guess what?  It often turns into a challenge-by-the-numbers–a bit like paint-by-numbers.

Or is it all in my head?

This time of year, everybody calculates the numbers.  The New York Times posts “The 100 Best Books of the Year” and the critics’ “10 Best.” Before New Year’s Eve,  all of us bloggers will post our 10 Best of the Year.  At Bustle and Book Riot, writers  are also worked up about numbers.  They lament they may fail to meet their Goodreads Challenge goals, and urge each other to read The Grinch Before Christmas and other picture books to get their numbers up.

I spent a week reading and marveling over Dombey and Son (900 pages), while others read it (or perhaps skim it?) it in a day.

And if they say it on the internet, it must be true. 

The odd thing is that in real life I read more than most people.  I never thought, Oh no!  I only read two hours today!  The year I read 170 books, I glumly told my doctor it meant I no longer had a life. He told me to stop tracking the numbers.

The reading life has changed with the advent of Twitter and other social media. (That is hardly original, but true.)  Ten years ago, I looked forward daily to long old-fashioned narrative posts from Yahoo groups on Trollope, Dickens,  Austen, and other Victorians.  Some of the members were common readers; others were intellectuals; all were well-read.  The emphasis was on close reading, not facile reading.  But people got older and retired, or went back to work.  Some of these groups survive at group.io, but the Goodreads and Twitter groups cannot replace those that folded.

But I do wish I were like Thomas Hardy, who read six hours every night, according to one biography.  Yeah.  I could do that!

I would… if I could sit still that long.

Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield”

Will they get off the phone to read David Copperfield?

The other day I blogged about a teacher who claimed in a post at a Millennial blog that she hates the classics.  Not only does she loathe Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte, but she believes that Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the seventeenth century.  

I wish I hadn’t read this woman’s boastful declaration of ignorance.  Why ? Because I do not want to be the kind of person who despises the younger generation. 

“This is the end,” my husband said, laughing.

 It is, though we laugh.  We dismiss this problem from our mind, because it is not our line of work.

This problem of barely literate, proud, classics-bashing students is becoming the norm, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. We have all read about students who demand “trigger warnings” and decline to read books on the syllabus that may trigger bad memories.  (That makes for a lighter reading load, doesn’t it?)   And if I may interject something  controversial, we all have been (choose one or more) cyber-bullied, sexually harasssed, threatened, beaten, mugged, raped, or traumatized by war.  Reading great disturbing literature  can even be therapeutic.

There is now a glut of articles about falling enrollment in the humanities. The digital age has changed the ball game: YouTube, Twitter, and other social media are now frantically integrated in some classes to engage students.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,  believes attention spans have shortened since he published his book in 2009.  His thesis  is “that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance.” 

Nowadays, it is worse, he says.  Instead of just making phone calls, students write 3,500 texts a month and take countless selfies.  He says, “ I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.”

In The American Scholar, Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel  University, writes about  teaching a 10-week one-credit course on Dickens’s David Copperfield.  Most of the students read very little, but committing to one long book  a semester gets them to engage with a classic.  She is proud of the success of this program and has expanded it.  She wrote in 2016,  “A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Again, sounds like a light load, doesn’t it?  But many students admitted to Cohen that they thought David Copperfield was the magician! Now they’ve read the book.

Bravo!  Whatever works.

N.B.  There have always been mediocre, even bad, teachers. I do not mean to idealize the teachers of my generation.  During my teaching days,  I once sat in on a college composition class in which the students were asked to do two things:  free writing for fifteen minutes (most spent it surfing on the net on their computers) and then the teacher went around the class and asked each student to identify the beginning and end of a paragraph in an essay.  No discussion of the essay, mind.  Just look at the indentations. Surely we weren’t first-grade prodigies, but we learned about paragraphs  from the Dick and Jane basal reader!

The Lonely Scene of the Subjunctive: If Only We Could Read More!

If only we could read more!

Mind you, I read a lot, but I can’t read a book a day.  And yet I am hooked on  Jo Walton’s column at Tor about her monthly reading.  Often she reads 30 books in a month, and her musings are fascinating.   In July, she read “just 14 books.”

Actually, “just 14” made her human. Much as I love her writing, it is impossible to keep up with her reading. I had read “just 13  books” in July, which I thought a respectable number, since it included a seldom-read Latin oration and a big novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward.

More and more people these days write about how many books they read and how many pages an hour. These stats became popular, as far as I can tell, in the 21st century.   In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a bibliomemoir about reading a book a day to cope with grief, Nina Sankovitch informs us that she could accomplish this feat because she reads 75 pages an hour.  Wow, that is a lot of pages!  And then while I read her reviews I kept  calculating how many pages she read per hour, how many hours a day…  And that was not not the point.

Book challenges online are often about numbers. At Book Riot, Courtney Rodgers recently announced her “30 Books in 30 Days Challenge” for September.  She writes,

This challenge started four years ago, when I was working two jobs that required a lot of time and physical presence, but not a lot of brain power. I wasn’t reading as much as I used to.  I wanted to read, but I was just tired and overwhelmed. So, being the stubborn sort of person that I am, I decided the best way to force myself back into reading as a habit and hobby was to read 30 books in a short amount of time.

Is Courtney a superhero?  When did she shower?   But I must interject that I will never, as she suggests, add picture books to a TBR stack so I can say I have read 30 books in a month.  That way madness lies!

Katie at Books and Things on Booktube recently posted a fascinating video, “How I Read As Much as I do.”  She reads during her  commute to her publishing job in London (one hour each way), reads books for work,  and listens to audiobooks while she walks, shops, or cleans.  Sometimes she and her boyfriend listen to audiobooks together.  (Awww…   I never listen to audiobooks, but I’m relieved that I can  keep up with Katie’s reading.)

Although I’m “a big reader,” as we used to say, I am astonished by the common reader’s obsession with numbers.   Some years ago, I read an interview or article in which Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World, and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda discussed their reading habits.  Both said they read 20 to 25 pages an hour. (But where is this article?  I can’t find it.) They read, they think, they take notes…and they pay attention.

We’re so used to being tracked now–steps, calories, book challenges, clicks on the internets–that we don’t even question whether the data is meaningful.

The internet brings people together, but it adds up to a lonely scene.

A Random List: Books I’ve Read on May 28

Do you keep a book journal?   If so, you know what you’ve read on May 28 each year for the last decade (2010-now).

It is a very odd list:  I’ve included links to posts at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu, where relevant.

MAY 28, 2010: The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante  (my favorite book by Ferrante)

MAY 28, 2011: The Needle’s Eye, by Margaret Drabble

MAY 28, 2012: Doctors and Women, by Susan Cheever

MAY 28, 2013: Ursule Mirouet, by Balzac

MAY 28, 2014: Off Course, by Michele Hunevan

MAY 28, 2015: The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte

MAY 28, 2016: Uncle Silas, by Sheridan le Fanu

MAY 28, 2017: Golden Days, by Carolyn See

MAY 28, 2018: Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford

MAY 28, 2019: Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger

Does this list have meaning?  Well, it’s a random date, and I’m disappointed by the results.  If I’d included 2009, the title would have been Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which would have added flair.  But these are good titles, all thoroughly enjoyable, more or less classics, with the exception of Susan Cheever’s clever novel, which is long forgotten  and out-of-print ( hence not a classic) but worth reading if you can find a copy.

So Many Books, So Much Time!

If you  were a furloughed federal worker, you’d have loads of time right now.

According to an essay by Sarah Wendell in The Washington Post,  many of the 800,000 furloughed federal employees are spending it reading.

Wendell writes,

I started noticing the trend in my own home, where my husband, furloughed federal employee Adam Wendell, has been burning through books at a startling pace. It’s a good alternative to checking Twitter every 10 minutes to see if the shutdown has ended, he explains.

Wendell says her husband Adam  is powering though Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, a fantasy/mystery series.  She also interviewed a furloughed meteorologist in Oklahoma, Barb Mayes Boustead, who recently finished  Tara Westover’s Educated, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, and Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter in Paradise.

Wendell says library use is up in the D.C. area. “Arlington County has noticed a pronounced increase in its e-book and e-audio circulation from January 2018 to January 2019. While there’s typically a jump of between 1,000 and 3,000 titles, this year it’s closer to 12,000. ”

A furlough might send me into the arms of Commissario Guido Brunett, the hero of  Donna Leon’s mysteries.  A few years ago on PBS, Louise Erdrich, the novelist and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, recommended Leon’s series as unputdownable.

What would you read if you were on furlough?  Or what are you reading on furlough?  I’m turning on the comments just for today so you can recommend books to read during the shutdown!

By the way, I’m 100% with Nancy Pelosi.