Reading (or not) through a pandemic

Remember that desert island  you used to playfully assemble a mental reading list for? That essential library that would fuel you through an extended period of isolation? How is that notion working out for you now in these days of lock downs and distancing and otherwise upended routines?

I was never much of an imaginary library builder, but at the moment, in a flat lined with a total of ten bookshelves—seven tall, three short—bursting with books, I am finding it almost impossible to commit to any one of them.

Some of this is probably reflects my readerly nature. I invariably pack too many books when I travel and as soon as I’m away from home, none of the titles look appetizing. I wonder why I brought some, wish I’d brought others. At worst, I pass through episodes marked by a literary nausea every time I think about reading. It’s odd, unsettling and counter intuitive to what I always imagine a vacation offers—time. All that waiting, flying, transiting, eating alone in restaurants…

These days, with varying distancing measures in place across the globe, many of us are faced with a surfeit of time. A reader’s paradise. Some seem to be coping well, if social media is any measure. Book related blog posts still appear, photographs of bookshelves and stacks of self prescribed reading material populate my feeds. I’m finding it almost as disturbing as the death counts and criminally inadequate political responses that also seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. I find books offer no distraction or comfort these days.

And I’m in a good space. The federal government here in Canada is responding rather sensibly to the medical and financial threats on the horizon and my provincial leader, much to my surprise, is responding with measured compassion and generosity even though our already weakened economy stands to take a beating. Certainly there are those who will always find fault, but the willingness to work across party lines is admirable. And although politicians have their share of time at the podium, our public health officials hold centre stage, earning respect and even a little celebrity in their own right. A sharp contrast to the crisis presently exploding beyond our southern border.

Yet, somehow I sit here, shuffling piles of books, reading a few pages here, a few pages there until once again anxiety pulls my attention away.

Some days are worse than others. The sun helps. Limiting time online is essential. But nothing works for long. Editing for 3:AM Magazine has helped a little—the imperative of a self imposed obligation I suppose—but I am engaged in precious little reading and writing for myself. Books that I’ve accepted or requested for review taunt me from the shelves even though there are no deadlines or absolute commitments attached. They fill me with guilt all the same. As do the partly read volumes I’m struggling to return to. Somehow I feel I should at least clear the deck a little before venturing on to something new. I’m already juggling a handful of titles as it is.

So I fritter around, surrounded by books, unable to finish anything, start anything, write anything. Overwhelmed by words.

These are, of course, exceptional times. Time perhaps, to throw out the “rules”, including all the idiosyncratic expectations we set for ourselves. Follow the flow. Resist the urge to measure ourselves against others. We are all in this together, but our circumstances vary. Friends in India, the UK, Italy, and South Africa are under lock down—variations on the theme are in place or on the horizon elsewhere. Here in Canada, physical distancing is advised if one is well, isolation if ill, and enforced quarantine if returning from outside the country. But each day, the parameters shift, the restrictions increase and for many the immediate future is unnervingly uncertain.

So I suppose my best pandemic reading strategy is to play it by ear.

Or is that eye?

Each day I try to get out for a walk, even if the energy sometimes eludes me. I’ve decided to set aside a few books in progress for the time being, and try to be open to any muse that might pass my way. At the moment, then, I’m reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter read along, R. K Narayan’s shortened modern prose version of The Ramayana and plenty of poetry. But is all subject to change without notice.

Stay safe, friends.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Reading (or not) through a pandemic”

  1. You know, Joe, you may not realise that you are a valuable resource for other people feeling the same way…
    Today I saw a news snippet about people experiencing mental health issues and about the resources available to help them. Among the resources suggested were the people who had mental health issues before the pandemic, who could help others by sharing what works/ed for them.
    And lo! I see you are doing it here. You are advising people to say offline, to try to attend to must-do commitments, to resist idiosyncratic expectations set by yourself, and to take a walk outside where it is beautiful. This advice from anyone is powerful: from someone who had experience fighting off the inner demons it is advice that’s priceless.
    Lisa x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I know I’m not alone in this and don’t feel any of the restless I’m going through is specifically related to specific mental health issues. Anxiety is widespread now and everyone responds differently. I heard one woman on the radio who had cleaned her entire her house, organized all her closets and was now finishing all her half completed cross stitch! I would do well to respond so productively! 🙂


  2. I feel exactly the same. Reading was always my comfort, sometimes my only comfort in hard times, but now I feel listless, unable to settle and tired all the time. I read somewhere that this exhaustion is a normal response to trauma, and also sometimes called allocentric overload. Very wise suggestionto take it a day at a time, not put too much pressureon ourselves and build in walks and downtime. Wishing you the very, very best!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Be assured you are not alone in your response to this crisis Joe. For all the people you hear about who are throwing themselves into reading/cleaning/crafting projects there are just as many feeling too unsettled to do more then the basics each day. I asked a question on Twitter this week whether people were reading more or less and the majority were indicating their reading had slowed down. They couldn’t concentrate. The last thing we want is for people to feel even more stressed by comparing themselves to others.
    Limiting exposure to social media and talking walks as you are doing is a good strategy . Keep safe.


  4. I’m struggling at times in the same way Joe. I’ve had to suddenly make the dramatic switch to working at home with no access to my usual systems, which is weird enough as it is. Defining the working boundaries is a little problematic, and I’m surprisingly tired. I’m reading, but light and distracting things. I can’t settle to anything solid. I dare say this will pass, but I’m definitely going to continue to keep off social media as much as possible (or at least the serious bit) and try to work out some kind of walking routine (there’s nowhere much to go round here). Stay safe!


  5. Like you Joe, I’m finding it hard to settle to reading, which is frustrating given the time we have. But, I’m like you with reading a vacation. I find it hard to read when I’m unsettled – psychologically now with the virus, or physically with travel.

    OUr Australian political handling of the situation is more like Canada’s than the US’s, though our leader can be confusing. As you say there are those who will always find fault, and our PM is not great at this sort of communication, but overall the leaders are doing a reasonable job. And, like your situation, our public health officials are holding “centre stage, and earning respect and even a little celebrity in their own right.”

    Anyhow, take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sue. Fortunately I’m finding distraction in things that don’t care if there is a pandemic—a leaking valve required a plumber, today discovering the refrigerator had stopped necessitated an emergency call and a movement of what we could salvage to coolers and boxes of ice and snow on the balcony until it can be repaired on Monday. At least I now have a solid excuse for not reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A timely post, thank you. I have also been finding it hard to concentrate on reading and have reverted to old favourites and poetry, as well as the Tao te Ching, all of which have managed to hold my attention. In fact I read Wallace Stephens’ The Snow Man for the first time in ages yesterday and it moved me to tears. I forget, in the rush of things, how astonishing poetry can be.
    Your photo reminded me of the poem.
    Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Having just relocated across the country in the midst of this crisis, I too had thoughts of immense pockets of reading, however the energy, will, need eludes me. Strange that, when presented with an actual “island scenario,” how one reacts. Been pondering a deep dive into some consuming “genre” read….escapism they call it! On that point, Ursula Le Guin’s recent essay collection has much to say about genre and American literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a time to move! I wish I could let go of what I should finish and read whatever strikes my fancy. But instead I keep ordering more books as if that will help. 🙂


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