It seems obvious. What you read affects you. You know this if you’ve ever been immersed in a good book and forgot to get supper started. Maybe you’ve found yourself mimicking some of the personality traits of a main character you admire. Or maybe the protagonist has a unique way of looking at the world, and you find yourself examining things through her eyes.
This can be a good thing. Allowing what you read to affect you can give you greater empathy for other people and hope for the future.
Or it can make you realize that we’re all totally screwed.
I didn’t choose wisely.
I want to understand what’s going on in the world around me, so I bought a copy of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry.
It takes a close look at what exactly happened during the 1918 pandemic, including the political influences that drove the medical/scientific approaches and the sociological responses. It seemed appropriate reading for the current situation.
Another book that recently made it onto my to-read list is The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells.
This book explores the current effects of climate change and how they’re likely to get worse over the next eighty years. It also looks at the ways those effects will impact the economies and political structures of different parts of the world.
I also wanted to read Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell.
This one explores climate change, the psychology and practices of people actively preparing for the end of the world, and what it means to be constantly living in the shadow of the apocalypse. Again, it seemed relevant to our times.
Additionally, I decided to join my library in reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, as he will be coming for a Zoom talk about this book next month.
This novel follows a Chinese character named Henry through his youth in 1942 and his “current” middle age in 1986. In 1942 it seemed like the world was ending as he watched the forced internment of all people of Japanese descent, including his best friend Keiko and her family.
Finally, I’ve wanted to read the Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemison (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky) for some time.
This speculative fiction saga is a moving story about love, identity, freedom, and society. Of course, it’s also apocalyptic.
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was the only book that had a particular deadline. The others I just wanted to read. And given my reading habits, my wallet appreciates my local library. These books are all pretty popular right now, so I got on the wait lists. Being a fairly equal-opportunity consumer of books, I put a hold on the physical copy as well as the ebook and audiobook versions available through my local library. I didn’t care which version became available first.
And, of course, after waiting months for some of these titles, different versions of different books all became available at the same time. So to get through them all I’ve been consuming at least three different books simultaneously: one in hard copy, one as an ebook, and one as an audiobook.
That’s an awful lot of world-ending misery to be reading at once. And of course, it affected me.
They were all good books, and I’m glad I read them, but I wish I’d spread them out a bit. I’m prone to depression under the best of circumstances. Reading about all the ways we’ve failed historically, are failing currently, and are likely to fail in the future didn’t help.
There was hope in these books, though. The pandemic of 1918 was not the end of the world, and there are lessons we can take from it and apply to COVID-19. There’s still time to mitigate some of the damage of climate change and move toward a more just and sustainable future. And both fiction authors emphasized how compassionate human relationships and strong communities are essential for surviving difficult times.
Many of us may feel isolated right now, but none of us is alone. What you read can remind you of that, even if what you read is dark and depressing. And you can change what you read. I’m not quite done with The Great Influenza, but I’ve added another title anyway. Now I’m also reading Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris.
In this book Norris explores the ancient concept of acedia, which dictionary.com defines as “laziness or indifference to religious matters” and which I define as a really bad case of the “why bothers?”. Again, it’s appropriate for the current situation. But rather than merely describing a situation of depression and despair, Norris details her own experiences with acedia. She doesn’t have any universal solutions or answers. But by inviting me into her journey she’s offered to walk with me on mine. And that helps. A lot.
If you find yourself with more time to read, remember that what you read affects you. Choose wisely. Educate yourself, entertain yourself, escape this world for one with magic or advanced technology, or discover characters you relate to or admire. But above all, take care of yourself.
Whether we realize it or not, we’re all in this together.
What are you reading? Let me know in the comments.
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