Coronavirus Notebook: Finding Solace and Connection in Classic Books

In this time of crisis, we are reminded that literature offers historical empathy and perspective, breaking down the isolation that we feel curled up in our homes to connect, across time zones and centuries, with others. who have experienced similar events. It evokes our worst nightmares (Poe’s Mask of Red Death, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”). And it highlights what we have in common with people from distant cultures and eras, prompting us to remind ourselves that others have not only struggled with traumatic events that have shattered the precariousness of life. , but have also been through some of the same things that we are going through. today. Writers, chronicling the plagues that repeatedly plagued London in the 17th century, noted the silence that fell over the city (Pepys noted in a letter that “little noise” was to be heard “from day and night but the sound of bells ”for funerals); the closure of businesses, theatrical and sporting events; and nervous efforts to use the weekly death tally to try to determine whether the disease curve is flattening or rising. The charlatans peddled “anti-poison pills” and an “incomparable plague drink, never discovered before”, then, like today, the rich fled to country houses to escape the plague-infested city streets, while the poor had no choice but to continue working there in low-paying and high-risk jobs. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” – a series of fictional tales told by characters who fled Florence to escape the Black Death, which decimated the city in 1348 (killing an estimated half of the population) – provides this which is now a sadly familiar tale of “the deadly havoc” that a pandemic can leave in its wake, as well as an appreciation for the consolations of storytelling and the human capacity for recovery and renewal.

At the same time, books make us aware of the gifts conferred by historical progress. Although science has yet to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, we understand the process of transmission of the disease in ways that people in previous centuries did not understand, and quarantine is no longer the alarming thing. than it was in 17th century London, when the sick and their families were confined to their homes for 40 days – their doors marked with a red cross and guarded by guards. There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to pass the time. The only way people could “converse with a friend of theirs,” Defoe wrote, was to shout through an open window.

Among the many victims of Covid-19 is our perception of time. Without work or classes, weekdays and weekends merge into a long strip of Möbius time, spent in activewear that we no longer wear at the gym. Unable to make plans (travel plans, business plans, wedding plans, even lunch plans), we are forced to live in a continuous present. And yet there are days when we feel like we have been transported to a world imagined in a futuristic novel – maybe not yet “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, but say “The Peripheral” by William Gibson or “Parabole”. of the Sower. ”Even Lawrence Wright’s new apocalyptic thriller“ The End of October, ”begins with a premise that strangely resembles recent headlines: An outbreak of a deadly new disease in Asia quickly turns into a global pandemic , leaving in its wake an economic and social devastation.

Other days we find ourselves in a time warp defined by old movies, old TV series (like “Law & Order” from the Jerry Orbach era and “Grey’s Anatomy” from the Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey era) and reruns of classic sports games. New York’s WFAN rebroadcast games from the 2009 Yankees World Series, while ESPN airs “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ road to their sixth NBA Championship in 1998.

Moreover, the coronavirus crisis intensified the nostalgia that had already become a defining characteristic of culture during the first decades of the millennium – what Simon Reynolds called “retromania”, an obsession with “covers, reissues, remakes, reenactments ”this has been spurred by the disorienting pace of social and technological change, and the easy online availability of music, video and text from decades past. Trump’s three and a half years in the White House have made us nostalgic for normalcy, for politics with at least a basis of decency, diligence, and decorum. And now in lockdown, we’re nostalgic for the day-to-day lives we led only a few months ago – the days we went to dinners and birthdays, movies and plays and ball games, when we didn’t need to put on a mask to go to the grocery store to shop or take a walk in the park.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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