The Pandemic in the Library

Well, what a year. And it’s only May. Although the virus affects the respiratory system, for me it’s hit me in the brain most. All I’ve suffered so far is an irritating cough that is probably nothing to do with the Big Bad Virus and for those of us with vulnerable loved ones or whose own health is wonky, we can only hope that the worst we suffer is a bit of mental fog. Nonetheless, many of us turned to our comforting books, only to find our tastes changed in strange ways, our concentration in fragments and our emotions in a churn.

At first I could hardly read at all. I paddled about in social media and the news with a blank tiredness. A good book tugs on your feelings, but my feelings didn’t want to be tugged, especially not by my usual fare of crime and horror. I found I could just about stomach a Poirot while doing some gentle work in the garden. I tried non-fiction as it doesn’t always have the direct emotional engagement of fiction, but I didn’t have the brain power for it. Not to mention the fact my current NF read is Queer London by Matt Houlbrook; hardly a light and unemotional topic.

So, back to fiction. But the last thing I wanted to read was the psychological thriller I was halfway through. Eventually, I remembered a middle-grade book written by a friend which I’d been planning on reading. It was funny and sweet and dealt with Victorians and circuses which are my jam, even in a kid’s book (The Son of the Circus by E.L. Norry). After that, I reached for a delightfully fluffy romance (Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman).

Before the pandemic I had been working through Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books and back I went to the monastery garden. By the time I’d finished two of them, and had sat in the sun conversing with Cadfael for long enough, I was almost back to normal and ventured on an unfamiliar crime novel. Heading for a book that looked like it had a fun angle with an elephant sidekick for our hero, I chose the first in the Inspector Chopra series by Vaseem Khan. It was an enjoyable choice.

Now, having recently finished M.W. Craven’s Puppet Show and almost immediately moved onto the second in the series (Black Summer), I am back in the gore and misery again.

This has highlighted for me how much I read for the emotional experience. It’s a pet theory of mine that the genres we’re drawn to is partly about which emotions we enjoy having evoked in us by another’s words. Usually I like to be scared, puzzled, horrified, but reading the news provided an overdose of that.

From discussions with booky friends, my reaction is common; several of them are reading shorter forms, or less dark material than usual. Others have been reading voraciously, hiding from a frightening reality in literary concoctions, dreams of romance, different times or places or fantasy worlds. Some readers have changed genre; either turning bravely to books set in plagues and apocalypses, or away from it all to more comforting titles. Some, having found themselves with lots of free time, have taken the opportunity to wallow in their reading.  Perhaps these are the lucky readers with calmer, less anxious personalities. Or perhaps they are just expressing the anxieties differently.

These personal reactions tell us about the times, but also about ourselves and what reading means to us. If you’re struggling to read at the moment, it can help to think about why you read. What do you get from the words? What do you need from the words? The answer to that question can guide us towards the right book when the world is upside down.