Viral Intimacy

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From Writer Unboxed:

“The primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission,” as Derek Thompson put it on Monday at The Atlantic brings together for me an intriguing parallel between the COVID-19 pathogen, our experience of it, and literature.

Contrary to trends found in studies showing people have less time for audiobooks during the pandemic – because many are at home more and not alone on commutes or gym trips – I’ve been listening to more books. Masked breaks from the desk for me are more frequent, not less, and more necessary because of a heavier workload.

And something about the nearness of a voice in your ear, the digital equivalent of someone’s breath on your shoulder, can intensify the psychological proximity of reading–the author in your head, the voice against your face, dangerous in terms of a contagion, luxurious in terms of literature.

Thompson is right that the scientists’ shift from a focus on surface transmission to an aerosolized threat hasn’t been followed well by the public. But neither was the shift to an understanding of masks’ importance, either. As the medicos’ grasp has deepened, the population’s attention has waned (or has been politically diverted), and yet both cleaning! and masks! are part of the same evolving insight, even as so many folks are breathing heavily from their labors with sponges and soaps, “funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals,” as Thompson writes.

. . . .

But the understanding now is that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is moving through the population on one of our most intimately shared features: breath. Talking. Whispering. Chatting someone up. Shouting someone down. At bars, outbreaks occur not because everyone is drinking after each other or pawing the same table top or bar surfaces but mainly because they sit close to each other to be heard over music, they raise their voices, they share breath. And they may be fully asymptomatic, too – the final terror.

Ironically, of course, the more isolated we become in order to keep from sharing each other’s breath, the more literature’s intimacy may mean to us.

A book is a thing of safe breath.

It’s better if it’s digital than print because other hands (and breaths) won’t have impacted its surfaces.

But it may be even better if rendered in audio, not only freeing you from the safety issues of surfaces but bringing the format into alignment with the communicative mechanism we need to avoid: speech.

. . . .

I find that I favor an almost conspiratorial tone in a narrator, reliable or otherwise. I want a voice that wants me. I want a story that arrives with eloquent urgency. I think there’s such a thing as narrative pressure and it feels good, like a breath on the ear.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

While it’s only a premise for the OP, PG questions whether anyone paying attention to the the world’s currently most famous virus formerly believed it was primarily contracted by surface transmission instead of floating invisibly into the bodies of its victims when they inhaled.

PG does agree that the quality of the audiobook narrator’s voice is an important part of the entire experience. He recently returned an audiobook edition of a bestselling traditionally-published book because he found the narrator’s voice annoying.

PG could be wrong, but he believes the quality of a narrator’s voice in an audiobook should become almost unnoticeable to the listener after the first few words. It needs to be a good voice, but not necessarily an overly-distinctive voice.

15 thoughts on “Viral Intimacy”

  1. “And they may be fully asymptomatic, too – the final terror.”

    A disease that doesn’t cause any nasty symptoms at all to most people who catch it is “the final terror”? Goodness. This person is the wimpiest wimp from Planet Wimp.

    • This person is the wimpiest wimp from Planet Wimp.

      I think you just made the poor author bleed to death with your nanoaggressive wrongfeels. Microshame on you!

    • Yes, because any self-righteous unmasked ignoramus can kill you. As the virus spread initially, and will continue to do unless vigorously blocked, because there is NO vaccine, NO cure, and no completely effective treatment, and we are still in the first wave.

      One person’s lack of symptoms makes it possible to pass it on to another who will die.

      For me, that’s too big a consequence. I guess I’m a wimp.

      • You’re a bit behind the curve.
        There are several proven treatments, depending on the patient, (like dexamethasone – an existing anti-inflammatory), one actual cure (Remdesivir) and no less than three vaccines in final tests.

        The Federal Government bought out the entire production of Remdesivir for July and most through sept (over a half million full treatments) and the UK bought the rest. The creators are allowing generic production elsewhere without asserting their patents. (It was originally developed years ago to combat Ebola and was being tested against SARS and MERS when Covid arrived (last Sept in China, January elsewhere).

        • As for asympthomaric spread, it is controversial because there is no conclusive evidence for how prevalent it might be:

          Part of the problem is there are at least two strains; the original chinese strain and an Italian mutation that arose in february that is more infectious but not quite as severe.

          The majority of the increasing positives being reported are from increased testing. And the reckless getting *themselves* infected.

          The media continues to misinform by reporting cummulative infections and deaths from day one rather than *active* hospitalizations and percent hospital utilization. Even NY (still more than Florida and Texas combined) never saturated the hospitals. Which is why the Navy hospital ships were never actually needed, in hindsight. The situation is serious but not catastrophic. Accurate contextual jinformation is out there but not in the mass media.

          Masks are misunderstood, though: the use of masks isn’t to keep the infected from passing it on but to keep the (presumably uninfected) mask user from catching it. It blocks *incoming* not outgoing. Also, the official definition of “unprotected contact” is less than 6 feet for 15 *minutes*. A lot of fearmonging is unwarranted. (Look at the noticeable but not total spread among riiters in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, etc.)

          It is a case where personal survival is undoubtedly a function of personal choice; a sin that is its own punishment. If you protect yourself, the unmasked are no threat to you, only themselves. Darwin Award rules apply.

          (I use rubber gloves and masks when I hit the pharmacy or supermarket. And occasionally, the drive through. It’s *my* lungs, my job to protect myself, not anybody else’s responsibility. Literally LIVE AND LET DIE.)

          We’ve learned a lot since March.

        • Remdesevir is not a cure; it is a treatment that can shorten some cases by a few days of those who are very sick and get it in a timely manner. It is also expensive.

          The probability of me, an ordinary citizen in a highly vulnerable group but otherwise not connected, with some pre-existing conditions, in a retirement community, getting the vaccine is a long time away.

          People are tired of quarantining and wearing masks after only a few months of it; it will be six months if I’m very lucky before I get a vaccine; more realistic timeframe is a year – given all those who are on the frontlines, and the politicos, and the military (can’t have the goons in Portland not be protected if there’s a vaccine, can we?)…

          A few treatments – proning, oxygen – are also available. The entire process of not dying, and then surviving long term if you get the virus is fraught. Many are surviving only to find they don’t actually get well, and end up with a post-viral illness similar to what I already have, ME.

          I think you’re way too optimistic, as is your right. Seven member of my family have it right now – and others are quarantining for two weeks just to make sure it is not passed any further. They are people who’ve taken all the precautions recommended.

          • Different people have different definitions of “cure”.
            It’s not a one-shot magic bullet but Remdesivir treatments applied early enough clear out the viral load by locking up the virus and keeping it from replicating. That’s cure enough for me.

            Sorry to hear about your folks.
            Pretty much all my close relatives are in the various high risk categories (age, preexisting condition, depressed immunities). So far (knock on wood) we’ve all avoided the bug via distancing, mask, gloves, and disinfectant wipes from early march, well before any lockdown.

            We’ve all chosen to follow best known practices as self protection, not to conform with external presures. We’ve seen too many people meet less than desirable outcomes (in many areas) from counting on others (and government especially) to take care of them. We take care of our own which is all we can do.

            So far, we’ve outlasted a cat-5 huricane, 4 months without electricity, 6 months of daily earthquakes, and (so far) 5 months of pandemic. (Plus a government of thieving incompetents top to bottom.) We believe in research and being proactive. Self-defense.

            I’m still researching potential asteroid impacts. Because that’s how 2020 rolls. 😉

            So far the closest was 24,000 miles.

            • Protect yourself by doing everything possible not to let the virus into yourself – and it’s still possible you will catch it, but the probability is smaller.

              I think of the entire world as contaminated – and behave appropriately. All that causes is a little extra time in a mask, and a few more handwashings. And a great deal of care when out.

  2. Alicia may be behind the curve but this does not invalidate her basic point that infected individuals who are currently showing no or mild symptoms – but who may show symptoms two or three days later – are still a severe danger to others (especially if the other is in a high risk group – something about which I have strong , if selfish, concerns as both my wife and are comparatively high risk). As for masks, the science is still developing, but my reading does not agree with your idea that they do not protect others: large droplets from coughs and sneezes that can travel much further than six feet should be drastically slowed if a mask is worn.

    Knowledge of the disease transmission and of best treatment procedures has advanced by leaps and bounds. The initial UK test results on dexamethasone that showed a ⅓ reduction of deaths of ventilated patients are an example of this. However, I don’t think that we can claim that a cure has been found; the preliminary results of Remdesivir tests are certainly good, both cutting deaths and speeding recovery but do not amount to a cure (though our disagreement may be a matter of semantics: I’m old enough that I think of cures in terms of the magical results of early antibiotics, before drug resistance was a thing).

    As for vaccines, the news is good but I foresee problems with ethics committees. You really want to expose the test subjects to the disease in controlled conditions and see what happens. There are going to be a fair number of subjects who will volunteer for this but this is where I expect problems to arise. (Ethics committees will certainly prohibit double blind tests involving un-vaccinated subjects, and will be right to do so, but I fear that they will reject real disease challenges in all circumstances, though I may be wrong).

    Then there is the problem of persuading people to accept vaccination, especially after a few deaths are caused by the vaccine (as will inevitably occur). Mind you, in the UK resistance will probably vanish when people learn that they cannot take foreign holidays without proof of vaccination, which I expect will become a standard entry requirement for most countries.

    • The unmasked are only a risk to the people that don’t observe precautions.

      Again: the mask protects the wearer from the infected. It does not protect the unmasked from the infected regardless of whether they wear a mask or not. And the protection is typically under 20% anyway. People with breathing issues are actually better off without masks. And isolating.
      Masks aren’t magical. They just reduce the wearer’s risk a bit and every bit helps. But if you are masked it makes no difference if the guy passing ten feet away is orisn’t.

      It is a personal security issue, not a herd issue.
      If you protect yourself it won’t matter that some fool chooses not to.
      Darwin Award rules.

      Like everything else, mask wearing has become a political issue. I’ve seen people wearing masks inside their own cars on the open road or in an open field with nobody within sight.

      Less than Six feet for fifteen minutes.
      Too much fearmongering.

      • My enduring image of this whole mess came while I was stopped at a red light. A woman rode by on a Harley, going abut 50 mph, long hair shooting straight back. She wore a mask… but no helmet.

    • I suspect the ethics committees will be rolled just like the FDA regulations on vaccine trials. Informed personal choice is a powerful force when millions of lives are at stake.

      When the risks, knowns, and unknowns are available, ethics people, doctors, and scientists aren’t any better than the man on the street at evaluating whether to take the risk.

      Anyone need a doctor to determine if he should play six shot revolver Russian Roulette with a payoff of $1 million. Scientist? Ethics type?

      How about playing with a semi-automatic? Ten shot magazine with one bullet? Better or worse than the six shot revolver?

      • “When the risks, knowns, and unknowns are available, ethics people, doctors, and scientists aren’t any better than the man on the street at evaluating whether to take the risk. ”
        In Pennsylvania they have other ideas:
        When lifesaving medicines run low, hospitals have to choose which patients get a scarce drug. Ethicists historically have recommended giving the drug to the patient most likely to benefit or using a lottery.

        Not any more. Pennsylvania hospitals are tilting the scale in favor of patients from “disadvantaged areas.” If you’re middle class, you’re toast. To “redress social injustices,” Pennsylvania is applying a “weighted lottery” statewide, to hike the odds that the scarce drug remdesivir for COVID-19 will be given to patients from poor neighborhoods.

        Remdesivir is a medicine that speeds recovery and increases survival chances by 62 percent, according to its maker. If you can get it. Your zip code could literally mean the difference between life and death.

        I’ll have to chew on the ethics of that one.
        And it’s story fodder potential. Maybe for a Progressive Utopia.

        • Sure. That’s an exercise of power. But when the situation and risks are known, the people with the power still have no better judgement of risk acceptance than anyone else.

          Fauci can say if he thinks the NFL should play, or schools should open. Once the risks are known, who cares what he thinks?

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