The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget all those reading lists. During a quarantine, any book will do.


We book critics were ready for this. When the covid-19 pandemic began to enter the American consciousness in late February, the army of reviewers like myself — well, a brigade (Okay, we’re a platoon) — snapped into action. We had deep experience in list-making, and now those lists were needed more than ever. What should our “quarantine reading” be as the stay-at-home orders began to come down? We had the answers: “The Stand.” “The Plague.” “A Journal of the Plague Year.” “Love in the Time of Cholera.” “Station Eleven.”

Soon, though, cracks began to appear in this plague-specific strategy. By the end of March, the “quarantine reads” lists began to include books that writers simply found comfort in. Or books that had just come out. Or books that had come out a few years ago. Or centuries ago. Here are some books that are very long to help you get through this; or perhaps you might like to read a book that is very short? Here are books to help you better understand pandemics; here are books to read when the pandemic is the last thing you want to think about. Last week, an email from Harper’s Magazine reminded me that it has 169 years’ worth of articles online, making it “your essential quarantine companion.”

We’ll beat this crisis through robust testing, social distancing, and, for some, heavy doses of William Dean Howells. But what we’ve learned is that any reading will work. Our rapid shift from laser-focused self-improvement to read-all-the-things omnivorousness is a welcome reminder of something that’s long been true of modern civilization: All reading is quarantine reading.

That is, we use reading not just as a means to educate ourselves, or to “explore other worlds” and suchlike, but to literally keep our distance from others. And though curling up in a corner with a book seems like an obvious, natural act, reading alone and in silence is a relatively recent phenomenon. In his 1996 book “A History of Reading,” Alberto Manguel points out that until the 17th century, reading was more commonly done aloud and in groups, whether it was scribes in scriptoria copying out religious texts or news being read in bars. Literacy was low; the emphasis on collective information such as the word of God was high. When people did read to themselves, observers were moved to take note. In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose was baffled to see Saint Augustine read silently; Alexander the Great silently reading a letter from his mother left his soldiers befuddled.

Reading will supposedly make you a better person. That’s not the real reason to pick up a book.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, though, the idea of reading silently by oneself had become more common, though not always socially acceptable. Literary historian Robert Darnton points out that as private reading bloomed, some feared that the act would have physical consequences. He cites the German writer J.G. Heinzmann, who in a 1795 tract warned that excessive reading would increase “susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.”

Perhaps Heinzmann was so concerned with the physical consequences of reading because of where so many of these silent readers were occupying themselves: their beds. The bedroom became the likeliest refuge for a reader seeking privacy, so much so that French educator Jean-Baptiste de La Salle fumed about the habit in 1703: “Imitate not certain persons who busy themselves in reading and other matters; stay not in bed if it be not to sleep, and your virtue shall much profit from it.” There was a misogynistic streak to all this tut-tutting: More and more of the members of the educated classes who had become private readers were women. (“At a time when women were allowed to possess very few private goods, they owned books,” Manguel writes, “and passed them on to their daughters more frequently than to their sons.”) For a sense of how terrifying some found this state of affairs, look at “The Reader of Novels,” an 1853 painting by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz depicting a nude woman shamelessly luxuriating in bed with a book. A devil is just visible under the bed, slipping more books her way.

It’s common these days to say that the chief virtue of reading is to understand others, but the appeal of private reading in its early heyday was that it was a way to understand ourselves. Private reading offered a refuge from the dictates of government, churches and men. (The woman in Wiertz’s painting has a sizable mirror hanging next to her bed.) “The shift to silent reading might have involved a greater mental adjustment than the shift to the printed text, for it made reading an individual, interior experience,” Darnton writes. Part of the thrill was that reading no longer had such a narrow purpose, that it could accommodate a host of interests: Those early silent readers, Darnton writes, were reading “to save their souls, to improve their manners, to repair their machinery, to seduce their sweethearts, to learn about current events, and simply to have fun.”

‘Walden’ may be the most famous act of social distancing. It’s also a lesson on the importance of community.

Fun — remember that? Like most readers I know, I’ve been trying to pursue private reading — the escape of it, the fun of it — at a time when privacy is harder to come by. I overhear my wife’s work Zoom calls, often punctuated by somebody crying, “You’re on mute!” Now that my third-grade son is distance learning, I’m duty-bound to brush up on coral reefs and conquistadors. Many readers have gravitated to big books to occupy their extra time; author Yiyun Li, for instance, has been leading an online read-through of “War and Peace.” In a similar mind-set, I decided a few weeks back I would finally tackle Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel “2666.” I liked to think that I’d be done with it by the time it was safe again to sit in a restaurant. But as all the things I like to think get upended daily, it’s clearer that the nature of the books we choose hardly matters. What matters is that we do the choosing.

As other countries and pockets of the United States begin making tentative steps toward a return to normalcy, there have been plenty of conversations about what habits we’ll keep from our time sheltering in place. Maybe we’ll check in more often with friends and family members; maybe we’ll try out more recipes. And maybe the calls to support local indie bookstores will continue even after their doors are open again. If so, perhaps we’ll remember that the opportunity to escape that a book — any book — gives us is one worth preserving. You’re on mute, you’re on mute, the whole world wants to tell you, but you can calmly respond: I know.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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