An Antidote for a Pandemic? A Good Book

As we struggle with forces beyond our control, remembering smaller comforts and pleasures can soothe, if perhaps not cure, what ails us

At least one of us, when departing New York for one of the smaller cities in New England, was not thinking: What have I left behind? When will I be back? How will we get food and toilet paper?

Instead, it was: I bet the book I ordered three weeks ago has arrived!

And it had. It was but the work of a moment to walk down the street and knock on the closed shop door. It cracked open, and we saw our local bookseller hovering in the darkness at the correct social distance. “I can’t let you in,” she said. “But if you know what you want, I can get it for you.”

I mentioned my order, and she nodded. Like a Lower East Side drug deal in the 1980s, a wad of bills passed from one hand to the other. The door slammed shut. Minutes later, the door re-opened, a bit wide this time, and a bulky, blue 800-odd page volume, Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (Henry Holt, 2020) slipped out.

Mission accomplished. I have been waiting for several years to read the final, fictionalized chapters of My Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell’s life. All that was needed now was a bag of cookies and a cup of tea. In less than thirty minutes, this intrepid reader was sprawled on the couch and plunged back into the sixteenth century, where summer fevers and the Black Death are a sign of God’s displeasure and European spies lurk around each corner. Anne Boleyn was about to be beheaded and Jane Seymour to become Henry VIII’s third wife. We know this story: Be assured that Lady Jane won’t be the last wife—and Cromwell?

Well, Cromwell should consider not counting his chickens before they hatch. That’s all I will tell you.

Even as our work, and the social world, move onto Zoom, and we can only obtain what we need from the library in e-editions, real books are there to offer the comfort they always have. These reliable, warm objects that smell of paper, ink, and glue, take us back to long summer days spent immersed in Narnia and Oz; swabbing out a cannon on one of Horatio Hornblower’s many commands bobbing off the coast of Spain; or rushing towards danger in the jump seat of Nancy Drew’s red roadster. The American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year in a space station, reminds us that physical books are soothing, particularly in a world mediated by computers. “Some people are surprised to learn I brought books with me to space,” Kelly writes. “The quiet and absorption you can find in a physical book — one that doesn’t ping you with notifications or tempt you to open a new tab — is priceless.”

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For this reason, although we have plenty to say about the pandemic and other aspects of public life, we begin this week with books we thought you might like too. The first up is an excerpt from our colleague Honor Moore’s new novel about a mother and daughter, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (W.W. Norton, 2020). Next is an interview with Edwidge Danticat about her short story collection, Everything Inside (Penguin/Random House, 2019). We close this section with novelist Ben Lerner, interviewed about his recent novel, The Topeka School (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2019).

In our next section, we dig back into the meaning of, and our responses to, the COVID-19 pandemic. Ian Zuckerman starts us off with a discussion of our current state of emergency. “Words like emergency, crisis, and emergency powers are used varyingly and sometimes interchangeably,” Zuckerman writes. “But there are important distinctions that a precise definition of these words can help bring out.” Next, Katie Scofield argues that not only must health care be understood as a human right, but one that is consistent with the original ideals on which the United States was founded. In “Labor Rights in the Time of Pandemic,” Laszlo Bruszt warns that rights can be retracted during emergencies, as they have in contemporary Hungary. In the last essay, economist Teresa Ghilarducci helps us calm down about the sick stock market and our wheezing retirement accounts.

Finally, we introduce a new issue this week: Public Life. Here to help us launch it is sociologist Anne Taylor, a veteran of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, who argues that whether the so-called “Bernie Bros” exist is the wrong question. The right question is: who are these uncivil activists, and how do we study them as a window into the campaign to which they devote themselves? It seems fitting to close this section, and the issue, with Robert Mass’s “Plea for Good Manners.” Politeness, Mass argues, is not in itself a virtue. Nevertheless, politeness mimics virtue, and by doing so, sets us all on the road to being virtuous people.

On that note, we leave you to enjoy yourself and, in a final act of virtue, we make a plea to our readers: when purchasing books, we ask you to help support independent bookstores, and when you can, use cash. If you don’t have a local store, consider Powell’s in Portland Oregon, or Parnassus Books, of Nashville, TN.

These, and any other small businesses you can still patronize, need you now more than ever before.