Essay Books

Hop in and shut out: This is the time when you want to read yourself out of the moment

The first thought that crossed my mind when the lockdown was announced was: finally I’ll have time to read all those books, swiftly chased by: what if I don’t have enough? As a freelancer, living off Maggi noodles and black coffee, unyoked from the calendar of night and day, social distancing is a lifestyle choice, not an imposition. But the thought of being stuck at home and not having anything to read was claustrophobic.

Binge watching is intolerable, given that I already spend so much of my professional life in front of a screen. The same goes for e-books; only the printed page will do. As critic Joe Queenan said, “My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books.”

Gateway drugs

The lockdown came at a point when I didn’t want to read a single word any more about pandemics, pathogens or pneumonia. At the first sign of the approaching storm, I behaved like the usual news junkie, scouring the underside of the web for conspiracy theories, or looking up fiction about outbreaks.

As the storm hit, one moved from the abstract to the practical — does drinking Assam tea help (it’s the theaflavins you see), for how many hours does the virus survive on different surfaces, ranked, and so on. Now that we are in the ominous silence of the storm’s eye, you want to stop scrolling Twitter, shut down the newsfeeds, rather like King John who said, “Do not seek to stuff my head with more ill news, for it is full.” This is the time when you want to read yourself out of the moment. Fortunately, the shelves that surround me in my apartment are designed for one and only one thing: escape.

I grew up in a boarding school, located on an enormous island of basalt upraised into the sky, isolated and remote. At an early point in my scholastic career, it was found that my appendix was planning to kill me and had to be dispensed with. During a long spell in the school hospital I discovered piles of luridly covered American sci-fi magazines. Even in those pre-Internet days I knew that the model of the solar system these magazines conjured up had been hopelessly overtaken by science, but I didn’t care.

The image of Mercury with one side broiling under a sky-filling sun, the other in frozen darkness, and a thin strip of inhabitable twilight in between; the ancient ruins of Mars built by a master race now long extinct; the sinister denizens of the swamps of cloud-shrouded Venus — all these burnt like liquid fire in the brain, far superior to the world of class politics, slip tests and athletic bravado.

Once out of the hospital, my search for the fix led me to the senior library, with its soaring ceilings and wonderfully comfortable chairs next to wall-high windows. There, arrayed like archaeological strata, were rows of vintage sci-fi, filled with strange names like Asimov and Heinlein, Kuttner and Kornbluth, Le Guin and Williamson. Adventures featuring dashing spacemen on far-flung planets, quests that usually had whole galaxies at stake, impossible machiner and sleek-finned ships that cleaved the stars. This was the gateway drug that led me to fantasy, horror, pulp thrillers and other genre intoxicants.

Grow up?

Even then, there was always the unasked question that persisted through college and the decades beyond — when will you start reading something serious? When will you finally ‘grow up’? When will you put behind escapism and confront reality. As C.S. Lewis said, only jailors are opposed to escapism.

Only, in the immediate here and now, escape means not from tedious jobs or bad marriages but from rooms the size of our skulls. Nobody said it was easy — as long ago as in the 17th century, philosopher Blaise Pascal had declaimed “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Indeed, being confined led the desperately bored 18th century writer Xavier de Maistre (he was under house arrest for unauthorised duelling) to write the inspired A Journey Round My Room, a parody of conventional travelogues (for example, Chapter V is ‘The Bed’).

Like other solitary workers from home, I know well this strange geography. How many times I’ve woken up at 2 a.m., having slept through the day, to start working. The days blur and bleed into one another. Sam Lipsyte advises in his novel Homeland: “When you work at home, fellow alums, discipline is the supreme virtue. Suicidal self-loathing lurks behind every coffee break. Activities must be expertly scheduled, from shopping to showers to panic attacks.”

Fatal inversion

By some fatal inversion, the inside has now become the outside, the hermeticism practised by the solitary worker suddenly replicated on a planetary scale. For me, the only change is that now I am woken by birdsong instead of traffic noise.

As panic-stricken citizens were ransacking supermarkets, I have no doubt that others like me were casting a critical eye over their book supply — would it last three weeks? The first estimate is invariably wrong: we grossly overestimate our reading speed — even at one book a day, we should have enough — but there are fears. Fears of being trapped in tedious narratives, starting on trilogies with missing entries and so on. However, a decade of collecting and even outright book-hoarding means I’m reasonably safe from such a fate.

The poet Frank Bidart is supposed to have boasted that were a cataclysm to end the world and only his cramped Brooklyn flat were recovered, it would still be possible to reconstruct the entirety of Western civilisation from its contents.

All bibliophiles secretly feel that their own collections will stand this supreme test, recreating whatever their obsessions were; in my case it would be literature of the imagination. By the end of the first week my apartment floor was littered with piles of books. I had decided to categorise them, make reading lists on a thematic basis, the daydream of every reader. For example, I could choose to read only those novels where chess provides motive power to the plot, say Zweig’s Schachnovelle or Pérez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel.

Metaphysical mayhem

Another taxonomical method is size; as Stalin is supposed to have said, “Quantity has a Quality of its own”. One shelf buckles under the weight of a row of giant tomes, such as the Zones of Thought series by Vernor Vinge, a massive trilogy spanning millions of years and thousands of alien races that I’ve been too daunted to confront. Or Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier, featuring metaphysical mayhem at a conference of philosophers.

Another mode of organisation is picking an author and burning through their oeuvre. This immediately draws me to a shelf which holds the Fandorin series by Boris Akunin. Set in fin de siècle Russia, the thrillers have been described as what would happen if Tolstoy and Conan Doyle collaborated on a Russian equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. Akunin uses a literary mechanism that I always appreciate — the character ages as the books progress over two decades — making a sequential reading even more appealing.

In this manner more and more piles are now accumulating, but I haven’t actually started reading anything. In the face of the formless panic that stalks the air, the atavistic urge is to retreat into the cave and pull the blanket over your head. In short, abandon the new, and turn back to what once gave you joy. Re-reading gives a feeling of control, because you know exactly what the characters are going to do, their fates predetermined.

In Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, William Brown and the Outlaws will always save the day. Or go back to Billy Bunterandits repetitive but effective formula.

I know that the years I spent hoarding these treasures have not been wasted.

Meanwhile, news sites now have blinking icons showing infection counters. Over the vacant streets there hangs a silence. A silence that smells like an aftermath. Now I think of my home as a spaceship. Grocery runs means cycling the airlock and stepping into the uncaring void. Supermarkets are alien planets where you forage while thinking all the while, who is infected? Who isn’t? Paranoia is as essential for survival as a spacesuit.

It is not a coincidence that in fantasy and sci-fi the space ships always have escape hatches, wardrobes conceal portals, there are magical doorways drawn in the air, and wormholes to transport you away. Sometimes escape is the only option.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 12:10:55 AM |

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