A Word In Edgewise: Books in the Time of Corona

Photo courtesy of BigStock/Natallia Boroda

“There is,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “no frigate like a book / To take us lands away.” Especially true in these times of quarantine, becalmed alone or with nearest and dearest, books are one of the few available means of travel. Books were my frigate before I knew the word. I could read before I entered kindergarten, and from the first mesmerizing page, books were my bulwark, my bespoke ghillie suit I’d don for protection against the predatory here-and-now.

I’m not going to prescribe a list of edifying reads. If you haven’t kept your graduation promise to finish Ulysses, odds are you won’t ever, any more than you’ll tackle Esperanto. I would, however, like to offer different ways of approaching words. It’s difficult enough to work from home, making sure to wash your hands frequently, sterilize all surfaces, interact with the other inmates. What I’m suggesting, at least during this period of close confinement, is that one might use a more scatter-shot approach to boarding that frigate.

Ask your friends what they’re reading, and give whatever that is a try. One friend was taken with the PBS Vienna Blood series, read one of the books and recommended it. I borrowed his and now plan to read the whole series. (Frank Tallis, Liebermann Papers)

Researching YA books for a friend’s nieces, I chanced upon Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer, first in a series involving a trio of young sleuths and art-related crimes; crisp writing incorporates sophisticated yet accessible concepts, codes, and teen angst. I’ve read three. Engrossing, and the larger type is easily read while on my stationary bike.

If the book you’re reading mentions another title or author, follow that up. One mystery author mentioned Child 44, so I ordered and read Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet thriller. Had to stop now and again to shelter in Chasing Vermeer. Yes, Child 44 was that grim, but that good. I’ve ordered the others in Smith’s trilogy.

Fine, but a slippery, red-flagged slope. John Pepys’s London, 1665: “But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ‘Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.” Also, Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague). Histories like Mary Lethert Wingerd’s North Country: The Making of Minnesota and Jill Lepore’s These Truths, are splendid reads, but may tell us more about ourselves than we are prepared to learn just now.

Open yourself to chance. The future is unknown, so why restrict what you put in your head? It all connects; it can all be of use. Quarantine may be over when you read this. If not, don your ghillie suit and set sail.

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