Reading Every Unread Book on My Bookshelf During the Pandemic

From The Literary Hub:

If you climb out my kitchen window onto the fire escape, you look down on our building’s tiny, lush garden. An elderly Polish couple used to live on the ground floor, with their toy-sized fluffball of a dog. The husband never acknowledged my greetings, but he and his wife brought the garden lovingly to life every spring. Two years ago, when they moved out, the landlord’s son moved in and left the garden to its own wildness. It’s choking to death now on its own weeds.

I’m out there all the time since New York’s quarantine began three months ago and left me feeling skittish about city parks—even a view of strangled greenery feels at least a little like summer. There is a tangible feeling of the neighborhood viewed from the fire escape that doesn’t exist from our other windows, which face a drab, imposing luxury building. Out there, I can see the neighbors’ back gardens, too. I can see the roof deck two blocks away, where a young (usually shirtless) father brings his baby out to wave to neighbors. I watched new construction climb on the lot behind ours, its crew working throughout the pandemic. I saw their communal lunch hour become socially distanced, their Friday evening drinks (beer in Solo cups, still wearing hard hats) suspended.

As a child, I watched Rear Window and told myself that city life would be just like that; I would know my neighbors’ routines and foibles and secrets as well as I knew my own. I haven’t seen any murders from the fire escape, and I’ve restrained myself from peering into any windows. But only in this unusual season, out there more often than ever before, have my own daily rhythms come to match those of my neighbors. In the evenings, I climb out with a glass of wine for a muted happy hour, just before everyone floods their windowsills for the seven o’clock appreciation cheer. In the mornings I sip my coffee in the sunshine, nodding to the neighbors on balconies sitting hunched over laptops, answering emails. And always, at whatever time of day, I take the book I’m reading.

. . . .

I flew home to Los Angeles. The visit had been planned for weeks. My mother’s February visit to the ER resulted in her being rushed into emergency surgery, and a month later, she was still recovering.

The thing about my mother’s house is that books cover, and I mean this quite literally, every single available surface. Stacks clog the living room floor, spread across her bed like laundry dropped from an upturned hamper, Jenga themselves to precarious heights on side tables. When I visit at Christmas, I behave like a Victorian invalid: curling under cashmere blankets, accepting endless cups of tea, reading for hours on end.

But in March she was the invalid, and I was purportedly the nurse. I stocked her pantry, retrieved her medications from the pharmacy, frantically pounced on any stray bottle of cleaning product I spotted on her drugstore’s desiccated shelves. But I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus on anything but Twitter. I watched Governor Cuomo’s press conferences for no discernible reason, frozen in a benumbed slouch. I fretted that my flight back would be canceled, then read about super-spreading and felt like a villainous moron for having made the trip at all. I drank far too much of the wine my mother always lays in for my visits and tried to read a Russell Banks novel about the brutal callousness with which our society treats sex offenders. It was not a book for the moment. 

. . . .

Safely back in Brooklyn, I decided that I couldn’t live that way for months, my thoughts never alighting on anything longer than a news graf. I needed to impose some discipline. I needed to escape from my own brain, and the only way I’ve ever understood how to do that (without recreational substances) is reading.

I make that distinction with only a slight wink: the place reading occupies in my life is really that of a vice. I apply myself to it like an alcoholic on a drinking binge that never ends; I do it compulsively, for days and hours I have pledged (to myself and others) to spend doing other things. It is no accident that I’ve arranged my adult life such that I can spend a full day reading and then lean on the pretentions of “research” or “craft,” as if I only dip into someone else’s fiction as part of the diligent work of writing my own. I gushed once, at a reading for my first novel, that I “would never love writing the way I love to read,” then felt my cheeks burn when the acclaimed novelist next to me arched one eyebrow.

. . . .

There have been various times, though, when I’ve found myself unable to read anything at all. Those are warnings, usually my first indication that I’m slipping into a blackness that will be slow to shake, periods when what I usually regard as an innate “moodiness” verges into something less manageable.

I sat in my living room in late March and knew that I wanted to guard against this. My fear, my paralysis, was no longer a question of my own projected failures and cultivated neuroses. It was, frankly, a logical response to the roiling world outside the apartment where I’d be hunkered down for the foreseeable future. I needed a reading project, I thought, and the libraries were closed. I stared at my bookshelves.

My books are arranged by color, alphabetized within each shade. The first shelf holds the blue spines, and as you move down the line you pass the reds, the yellows, the blacks and the whites and the shelf reserved for colorful, unclassifiable jackets. In quarantine, I decided, I would read through the shelves in order. I would read every single book I had never picked up. There would be no skipping allowed and no rereading of old favorites permitted. I would have to finish every book. I posted a picture to Instagram, just to make it official, and started the next morning.

. . . .

The “project” did not begin auspiciously. The very first book was A Death in the Family, by James Agee. It was quiet and gray and mournful. It was not what I wanted to read in the third week of March. I would never have picked it up of my own volition, but this felt like someone else’s volition. It was a relief, some organized authority telling me what to do amidst an apocalyptic lack of organization, even if that someone was an amorphous force I’d made up. My brother teased me—why wasn’t I allowed to “break the rules?” But I wasn’t.

I read Lucia Berlin, whose stories I had been “meaning to read soon” for four years. I read All the Light We Cannot See, a book I’ve discounted in the past surely just because I’m jealous of its eye-popping success, and found it an absorbing, delightful distraction. I read White Noise, which I’m pretty sure I had previously claimed to have read but absolutely never had.

In a serendipitous turn, I picked up The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Mother’s Day, when I was already thinking about my Australian grandmother. She moved to Los Angeles after the war to marry the young American naval officer she met in Sydney, a boy who had survived Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal. Richard Flanagan’s novel is a grueling read, moving from rural Tasmania to mainland Australia to a Japanese POW camp in Burma. But it made me feel, as I read, close to my grandparents again. They are both dead now, and neither one of them was ever greatly interested in telling me about their lives before they settled together in southern California. I asked my grandmother once what had drawn her to him, and she shrugged as she told me simply that he was the first boyfriend who survived. They were two unhappy people, irreversibly scarred by a war that began when they were little more than teenagers. But they stayed married until the day he died. I finished the novel just before Memorial Day.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub