What makes me come back to a work of literature? It’s been some three years since I’ve been in what I’m calling “Covid Reading Mode,” and I have to say I’m not impressed with it. Covid Reading Mode, for me, is going to a restaurant and ordering the same three goddamn things on the menu every time. I always go in thinking I’m going to order something different. Maybe I’ll ask for a different thing. Or the same thing a different way.
And the things I order off the menu are… weird. Jane Austen and George R. R. Martin? And why not Shakespeare? And why is it that when I see Moby-Dick on the menu, I order it, thinking that looks amazing, but then when it arrives I only ever eat half and then I ask them to pack the rest as leftovers, but then the second half sits in my fridge untouched?
What if… Hear me Out Here. What if… I Didn’t Just Read the Same Three or Four Books Over and Over?
What about George Eliot?
I tried to branch out recently. If I could get by with Jane Austen, it stands to reason, then I could make an attempt at one of her literary heirs. Hence: Middlemarch by George Eliot. Not only do I like Eliot’s writing style, but I greatly respect her as a person. She was part of an open marriage way back in the 19th century. That takes balls, no? Well. Gumption, anyway.
What about Rabindranath Tagore?
And Rabindranath Tagore. My introduction to his novels is a story unto itself. I was in a bookstore attached to a theater in Bangalore. I knew the name of the author, and had perhaps read a story or two, a poem or two, over the years. But on impulse, I bought Gora. It turns out to be his longest novel (though the copy I bought had some pages missing).
It’s not the sort of novel a 21st century reader expects to sit down and sink into. The characters are too idealized; the speeches too long; the concerns too remote. Concerns like: can widows remarry? What is the value of a rigid caste system in a rapidly modernizing society? Anyway, I finished the book in a matter of days; alternating between the last pages of the novel and some glances out the window of an overnight train we were taking up to Bombay from a city further down the coast.
I call Tagore a literary heir of Jane Austen because, as I was reading Gora, I had the feeling that I was reading an Austen novel; the same busybody neighbors, the same will-they-won’t-they marriage plots, the same clever dialogue. But with caste-politics taking the place of… wait, no. Austen’s novels are also about caste politics. I guess the main difference is that Tagore’s characters have more of a tendency to speechify.
The point is that Gora was not the likely candidate to become is one of the pivotal novels of my life. But that’s what it became. Even with all of the distractions a vacation in India affords, I plunged into the novel and barely resurfaced until the last page. And so I thought it would be just the book to snap me out of my Covid Reading Mode. I have reread Pride and Prejudice twice in as many years, and once through through Sense and Sensibility. But I was unable to pick up Gora. Or if I picked it up, I put it right down again.
Covid Reading Mode has been a trial. I suppose it’s no worse than Covid Anything-Else Mode.
Covid Reading Mode: An Overview
The reason I’m writing all of this is that a person may be coming to this site looking for what to read next. Or they may be coming here looking for a bit of inspiration. Well. they may be shocked to find out the following:
- Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years have been audiobooks. Yes, that counts as “reading.”
- Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years have been re-reads.
- Those I have tried to read in other formats (usually ebook, with the occasional analog volume thrown in) I’ve mostly not finished. Really.
Here’s a list of books I’ve not completed this year. The list itself is incomplete:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- Book of Fire: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Bloody Birth of the English Bible by Brian Moynihan
- The Wicked King by Holly Black (I did finish the previous book in the series, The Cruel Prince)
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Now. With all of that, there are books I read and loved, including Book of Illusions by Paul Auster and The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. But that pile is far smaller than the did-not-finish pile. And the books I’ve finished have tended to be simply written. Solidly middlebrow. I used to love the ornate sentences of Henry James and Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass. But I have no head for them now.
Even as I’m writing this list, I find myself saying: Oh, I like that book. I should pick it up again. And maybe I will. But that word ‘should’ is poison. There is a reason I didn’t finish those books. There is a reason I have let them languish for weeks and weeks and not picked them up again. And wishing it were otherwise will not change that reason.
Why Covid Reading Mode is a Thing
So what’s the reason? It’s actually fairly simple. I have been more distractible lately. I have had more trouble paying attention to a book. The moment I pick up a physical book (be it analog or e-reader) I find myself fidgeting. The moment I turn on an audiobook, I want to be doing something with my hands. Playing a card game on an app, for example. Or walking around my neighborhood.
These things are just facts. And all the shoulds in the world will not change them. It’s just a fact, for example, that we’ve been in a global pandemic for some three years and, whoops, another variant came out and this one has some teeth, unlike the last one. Oh, and monkey pox. And Ukraine. And…
It’s just a fact that I have less mental energy that I would have had otherwise. I won’t say that I have less mental energy than I had in, say, January of 2020. I had just defended my dissertation the month before and Anuja was getting ready to spend a year in England and so the whole beginning of 2020 I was either catatonically depressed or dancing at my niece’s bat mitzvah. So life gets in the way even when there’s not a global pandemic. But the global pandemic sure-as-hell doesn’t help.
The same arguments apply elsewhere, by the way. For years I avoided strenuous physical activity. I always wanted to be active. I just… didn’t. And instead of doing the reasonable thing of inquiring into the whys and wherefores of my avoidant behavior, I doubled down on the shame and guilt and self-doubt. And I’m here to tell you that it worked! The more you shame yourself, the more productive and happy and succes–no, of course it didn’t. Burdening myself with negative emotions just meant I had even more damage to heal when the time came. I started being more physically active when I started allowing myself to cycle through activities at far-too-fast a pace until I found one or two I liked.
The Mentor Fallacy
Why am I writing all of this? Because I’ve been giving advice a lot lately. My writers–the people who write monthly columns on Erika’s and my website–check in from time to time. And frequently, they have writer’s block. We all do. It’s nearly as contagious as the two damn plagues we’re currently living through. And so I try to help them through it. I counsel them to take little steps. To try little things. To keep in touch with the people in their lives who help them to stay positive. Pretty basic stuff.
But giving advice carries with it a certain… power dynamic. When you’re the editor of a website, the advice mostly goes one way. And so mostly I end up sounding like a mentor to these writers. Writers who have accomplished amazing things with their lives. Who have started their own endeavors. Started families. Had children. Held down jobs that took them across the country, or across the world. And here I am advising them.
Okay Fine You Win I’m a Mentor-Figure in this One Area
I didn’t really expect to be a mentor-figure. What had happened was: I kept steadily improving as a writer of English prose for a couple dozen years, and then people who hadn’t done that came to me for advice vis-a-vis their own writing. So fine. I’ve put in the hours. Chances are I’m a better writer than you, just like chances are you’re better than me at whatever you’ve put in the hours to get good at. Whether that’s raising children or working 9-5 (or longer) at a particular place.
But as long as I’m going to be a mentor-figure in this one area I feel it’s important to tell you that I haven’t read a new book in a while. Not all the way through. And I don’t feel badly about it. Okay I do feel badly about it but I’m working on not feeling badly about it. If you’ve got advice on how not to guilt myself for not reading The Brother’s Karamazov during several simultaneous global catastrophes, I’m all ears. It shouldn’t be that complicated. Just read one page. Then turn the page. Then read the next page. And yet it’s more than I have been able to manage this year.
Grief, Like Silence, Can be Broken by being Spoken
The point is it’s okay if the last few years have kicked you in the kidneys and the things you wish you could do are on the other side of a cage from where your fingers would be able to reach them. And it’s okay to tell people that that’s what’s going on, rather than keeping your rage and shame and grief to yourself. And it’s okay if, when you finally tell someone something you’ve been keeping inside for a day or a year or a decade, it feels at first like it does more harm than good to share your secret.
Sharing your innermost feelings… hurts. We do it because it’s better than the alternative. But on the days when you don’t quite feel up to sharing your troubles? Watching Mr. Darcy overcome his natural reticence to entrust his innermost feelings with Elizabeth can be a powerful motivator. Even if you basically know the scene by heart.