The role of books in surviving a pandemic

“Mom, are you ok?” asked my 11-year-old son.

No, I was not okay. Earlier that day, I received an email with bad news. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the kids’ school was closing for two weeks, effective the next day and, worst of all, our local library, was too. Some people immediately went out to hoard toilet paper, canned goods, and milk. I went to the library.

Books have been my lifelong companions; I cannot remember a time without a book by my side. Like marriage vows, they have been with me through sickness and health, in good times and bad. Books never push me away, demand more from me than I am willing to give, or make me feel guilty for ignoring them. They can disappoint, but this just means I am free to move on to the next. Even when depressed or at the peak of anxiety, a good book can pull me in, make me forget, allow me to escape. My relationship with books is one of the most consistent, engaging, and fulfilling relationships of my life.

I came home from the library that night with three bags filled with books. There were some cozy mysteries, easy to digest and mostly forgettable, what better to soothe in a time of crisis? I also picked up some fantasy novels. Escaping our world sounded ideal, I would let books transport me out. Last but not least, I picked up some books by authors on my “must read eventually” list. Like so many, I foolishly thought the quarantine would inspire me to attend to my neglected tasks. This turned out to be sadly misguided. Left behind on the stacks were the thrillers, too much intensity in this time of uncertainty. I also ignored the non-fiction, I had more than enough day-to-day realities to manage.

Needless to say, I own hundreds (thousands?) of my own books. They are in every room of our house, often shelved in a double row. I love knowing that when the mood strikes, I can reach for a Sue Grafton alphabet mystery, or a Kate Atkinson favorite, or a beloved classic like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Or, well, you get the idea. But as every book lover knows, there are never enough. For as much as I love reading (and re-reading) my own books, it is the hunt for a new one that drives me to the library.

As an avowed atheist, the library is my own kind of holy space, a congregation of sorts, full of people who would rather be reading than socializing. In the months since that email from our school system, I have not missed the mindless chatter at work, seeing casual acquaintances at the grocery store or the park, or (I will guiltily admit) school functions. I have, however, mourned the time lost quietly browsing through the library. Not always knowing what I am looking for, my slow, lazy strolls through the stacks are meditative. Maybe around the next corner I will find a new author, a new genre; I never enter the library knowing exactly what will leave with me.

With the library, closed I’ve taken refuge in the digital library online. At the press of a button, I can download thousands of books for free through the public library system. I have not been starved for reading material, assuming I know exactly what I am looking for. I think my children have now gone over to the dark side and actually prefer to read books on a screen, no surprise for this digital generation.

Another previously underutilized resource is my local bookshop. The staff have been attentive to my requests, not only commiserating on delivery dates and backorders, but offering to drop off on my doorstep! I’m embarrassed to admit that it has taken a worldwide pandemic to make me appreciate the role I must play in keeping local independent bookstores alive and well.

The pandemic has been destabilizing in too many ways to count, leaving our lives upended. Even as restrictions have eased in my state of Pennsylvania, I anticipate the next round of stay-at-home orders. While others worry about getting food, it is my emotional health that feels shaky. I have stored extra rolls of toilet paper, stocked up on canned soup and flour, and frozen packets of yeast but one thing I can’t find any replacement for is the library.

For me, a stack of books waiting to be read is a symbol of hope, of hours of enjoyment, of time well spent. The physical act of opening a book is allowing myself to be transported, investing myself in the emotional lives of fictional characters thus escaping my own. Especially in a time of uncertainty, a book is a way to be somewhere else, with no responsibility other than to follow the story.



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