My dad called me yesterday. “I just called you to check in, ’cause I don’t know what else to do,” he said when I called him back. “I mean, I called to check in. But I also don’t know what else to do.”
My dad doesn’t need a lot of social interaction, but he’s feeling the inaction and frustration of this time more than I am. He’s 82, back problems are limiting his mobility, and he thinks the surgery he’s taken several months to become mentally prepared for might now be deemed non-essential. And he couldn’t get an appointment to discuss that with a doctor any sooner than mid-May, even before the coronavirus came along. And in Colorado Springs yesterday it was cold and overcast. It’s warm and sunny here. When I called him back, Jenny and I had just returned from a long walk in Ballard, admiring beautiful old houses and exchanging friendly greetings – from at least six feet away – with people working in their gardens.
“Don’t you have books to read?” I asked my dad.
He did, of course. He always does. He told me he’s been trying to read a book by Elaine Pagels, the celebrated author of The Gnostic Gospels and scholar of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. I’ve read several of her books myself, about various apostles and stories that got left out of the New Testament basically for political reasons. They’re fascinating for the windows they open onto the might-have-beens of early Christianity and the ancient world. But trying to read Pagels right now, Dad found himself wondering: “What does this have to do with anything?”
Various periodicals and literary eggheads have been earnestly urging on us the notion that self-isolation can be an opportunity to catch up on our reading. I’ve seen a few lists, and I have to say they’re pretty nannyish. I’ll read what I feel like reading, thank you very much. Some of the lists seem just random, as in “You should use this time to improve your mind by reading books, and here are some that I randomly recommend.” Others are obtusely obvious: The Guardian’s list included the recent post-pandemic novel Station Eleven and, of course, The Plague. Someone I follow on Twitter (Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles) tweeted a call for suggestions, and I offered Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Moby-Dick, Lonesome Dove, and Orwell’s four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Rabbi Wolpe “liked” my suggestion of Lonesome Dove, which was gratifying. (Among the other great merits of the greatest of all cowboy novels, it’s an excellent conversation topic if you find yourself seated next to a Texan on a plane or at a dinner party and want to avoid politics and religion.)
The idea of using unexpected free time to read long books recalls the time when, way back in 1986, I saw a flyer tacked to a bulletin board in Kathmandu’s tourist quarter on behalf of an inmate at the Central Jail who was requesting visitors. Out of sympathy and curiosity, I went to the jail and met a 23-year-old Englishman who had tried to mail a kilogram of hashish home from the General Post Office. He had taken the fall to spare his brother, and the brother’s role was to return to England and do all he could to secure his release, and to avoid telling their mum until after Christmas. He complained that the staff at the British High Commission didn’t seem eager to help him, and that a pecking order in the jail determined who got to use the ping-pong tables. He also complained about the unvarying diet of rice with potatoes and spinach. I don’t know if he was a reader, but I returned to the jail a second time and brought him a few novels, including The Name of the Rose.
Anyway, I get where my dad is coming from. My own attention span isn’t really up to reading books right now. Ostensibly I’m reading the post-flooded-coastlines novel New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz’s classic dissection of intellectual and cultural life behind the Iron Curtain. But the book I’m making more progress in is Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922 by Marina Tsvetaeva, where just this morning I read this: “The main thing is to understand from the first second of the Revolution: all is lost! Then – everything is easy.”
I did just finish reading an issue of The New York Review of Books. Dated March 26 but hitting my mailbox in early March, it reads like a collection of missives from a bygone time. There’s nothing in it about the coronavirus. I enjoyed Hari Kunzru on the history of right-wing trolling online and Lynn Hunt on the Napoleonic Wars, but skipped Darryl Pinckney’s latest musings on race and Anne Applebaum’s review of yet another biography of Margaret Thatcher. I had not known about Beethoven’s conversation books, and Lewis Lockwood clued me in on them. But Michael Tomasky’s analysis of rifts within the Democratic Party, which would have been useful reading if the world were still normal, was of interest now largely for how weirdly out of date it had already become, submitted for publication as it was on February 27.