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On Reading: Reading Through a Pandemic

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You would think one might plow through books during a pandemic, making the most out of quarantine and isolation. Truth be told, that’s not what this reader found to be the case. I stalled. I plodded. Mostly, I couldn’t.

While I didn’t stop reading all together, I find I have read far less books than I might have in more normal years. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t consider that, wondering what it will take to get back up to a speed to take on all the beloved unreads on my bookshelves. There’s lots of learning to do and make useful.

The way I described it early on was that I had ‘lost my metaphysics’. I couldn’t, out of habit and reflex, rely on things the way I had before. I was in a mindfog. Others described ‘languishing‘. The reliable patterns of how life was lived and days were made was gone, and something of identity and well-being along with it. Forced into the very present moment, words seem to lose their heritage, meaning and purpose. They ceased to connect. The dependable way things were failed as normal gave way to the behavior change the lethal spread of Covid demanded (and, alas, still warrants).

The very moment of quarantine shutdown, I was writing an article about an artist whose work is often commissioned for public spaces, the cover story on Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann for an issue of Little Patuxent Review. I had just finished interviewing the artist, and had the piece settled in my head. It only wanting typing out. It should have been an easy thing to do as lockdown started and I would have some time, but I started to realize that I had to write a completely different piece than what was in my mind — how does one visit and view public art when one can’t, what does that say about art and experience, what of public art and place in particular? I began to realize that the underlying foundation to what I wanted to say no longer held sway. The piece became an altogether different consideration. I was stifled and it took me a while to ‘come to terms’ and write it.

Words have definitions that come from long development and understanding (agreed upon, or not). In a sense, they are The Past, and our reliance on the past in the way we now live. They connect us in this way. Along comes the pandemic and the every day way things used to be is no longer the way things are. For me that was particularly unsettling. Pushed into the present moment, the present room, disconnected from a reliable, collective understanding/participation, I lost a structure to the way things were. I lost my metaphysics, the way I understood the world.

I balked at reading. If you know me, you know that reading has a large part to do with who I am, how I become, how I give back. That sort of stopped at the pandemic’s beginning.

Wonder-fully, it was a book on gardening that started me up again. That first summer of the pandemic, when the numbers had settled, we took a road trip to an AirBnB on the side of a Fingerlake in New York, a way to get out of our own house and the dull rigor quarantine had imposed. We picked a place we were familiar with, knew enough about to know we could keep our pandemic-safe practices, and headed out. I packed a stack of books, of course, though I probably wondered why at the time. I wasn’t reading. One of those books was Katherine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Clifftop overlooking Seneca Lake, the rustic house we stayed in had a garden, and in that a metal table surrounded by chairs. It was there I cracked open this book. I fell into its pages, its way of seeing and saying. It is a marvel. A New Yorker editor writes reviews of seed catalogues in their heyday. How could that be interesting, and why is it three hundred some pages? Every season as the catalogues came to her, Ms. White would read and review the writing, which had a literary pedigree back then. Gardeners of the world delighted; readers of the New Yorker were charmed. It is charming, bewitching, settling, especially if you look up from its pages into a garden surrounding you as you read, realizing you are in the midst of a season and its beauty and being: things are doing what they are supposed to do. Count on them. The repeating cycles of Nature. Reassuring.

Reading through the book, the years of seed catalogues, the pattern of one season after another, I shifted into a kind of Taoist appreciation of what was going on in my moment. Life from one year to the next no matter what is going on, the cliched ‘going with the flow’. Life energy moving through time, maybe not unconcerned with its particular season, but carrying on and through it, doing what life does: being and becoming. Rising to the occasion. This really was reassuring. The dread at being in the beginning of a pandemic, illness and death sweeping through, a steeped uncertainty with everything on hold, abated, and I looked to the larger patterns of Nature, the persistent force that moves through time.

It was the right book at the right time, and it helped me settle back into words, into reading, and rely on patterns of understanding that we carry along even through strife. I look to books in a know-that-you-know-nothing kind of way, hoping to learn something about being, place, and existence. This book helped me regain a sense of possible again. Odd, but there you go.

While I won’t say I am reading again at pace, I am reading more each month. I am a few books into the year already. At the moment, I am in the midst of the appropriately named Begin Again (Eddie S. Glaude Jr., 2020), what James Baldwin has to tell us about our particular time (what a book it is! but that is a different post — hoping to find the words soon to write it, but it is sending me off to read more and all of the Baldwin, and it may be a awhile).

We are still in the midst of the pandemic’s waves — they do drag on, and enough already — but we do seem to be adapting to the situation, carrying on like gardens do and remind us to do, relying on that kind of structural knowing and persistence. What a privilege reading is. While it is a frustration not to be in a mind to read for me, it is also a bit selfish and a whine to go on about it — apologies for that. Know that I am grateful for your attention. Dear reader, what books have helped you settle through these unsettling years and why?

Happy reading,
Tim Singleton
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo


I’ll point out that Onward and Upward in the Garden deserves another kind of look, one less sentimental, the privilege of property and place offering a different, more critical regard. A post for another day. I talk of words and language as connective above, but Begin Again looks at how they do quite the opposite, as well. It is one of the reasons I put these two together here — there is so much more to reading than just the book you are in, than the perspective you bring to it, all things considered.

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