When I think about books after this odd, grim, pandemic-struck time, I think about Moe Berg.
I know this because I can go to my bookshelves and search for my copy of Nicholas Dawidoff’s lively (if awkwardly titled) 1994 biography of Berg, “The Catcher Was a Spy.” And I take a peculiar comfort in that searching these days, where I get more intense reminders that physical books carry memories like nothing else. Though I haven’t looked at Dawidoff’s book since I read it in San Francisco two decades ago, the physical book itself immediately calls up a host of memories. Like Berg’s newspapers, a book can be a “live” thing.
The coronavirus pandemic savaged opportunities for that feeling. The fleeting period of normalcy earlier this summer made it easier to see now how wearying it’s been to be a book person during this stretch. The book club I attended at my local bookstore with a few dozen others shifted to Zoom meetings; everybody made their best effort, but the conversations were rife with glitches, crosstalk and delays that made it harder to keep up or take part. Sidebars and one-on-one pregame chatter vanished. Eventually I just gave up. Chirpy suggestions that I sign on for Zoom interviews and readings, even with prominent authors, began to feel burdensome, like getting invites to a former roommate’s first turn at open-mic night at the Yuk Hut. Critics like myself were often shunted away from physical review copies and compelled to work with e-galleys with varying controls on copying and notetaking. I could — and did — buy physical copies of the books I particularly loved. But they didn’t bear the imprint of my experience with the book. The scribblings, dog-earings, spine-crackings.
They weren’t — Moe, back me up here — alive.
I don’t think of myself as a Luddite; I’ve tolerated Zoom calls and e-books decently well during the pandemic, and I navigate Facebook and Twitter about as well as the average online citizen. It’ll do, in a pinch. But the pandemic has made me feel the pinching. It kept stoking an urge for a more tactile book experience.
In that, the pandemic has exacerbated a feeling that’s been pervasive for a while now. Late last year, San Diego State University English professor Jessica Pressman published “Bookishness,” about the myriad ways readers have attempted to preserve, embrace or imitate a sense of physical reading experiences when it feels like they’re being collectively marched into the digital sea.
“Bookishness,” as Pressman defines it, relates to “an identity derived from a physical nearness to books.” This can manifest itself in peculiar, sometimes kitschy ways: She contemplates Jane Austen-themed duvets and leggings, book decoys that serve as home decor, book-themed laptop and cell-phone covers. More substantially, we’ve gotten more novels with book-themed plots, more book art and more novels that don’t easily transfer to the digital space — think of Mark Z. Danielewski’s brainy, design-heavy “House of Leaves” or J.J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s “S.,” a literary love-story-slash-mystery stuffed with ephemera like postcards and scribbled notes. Even the way that online bookshelves mimic real ones evoke our craving to connect our identities to physical books and physical shelves, Pressman writes.
Moreover, bookishness strives to preserve what Pressman calls a “memorial function,” as “certain cherished associations about books are being challenged in our new media age.” Ironically, memorializing that old-fashioned sensibility is often done digitally. TikTok is rife with readers swooning over books; YouTube and Instagram is thick with documented book hauls; Zoom interviews feature carefully manicured bookshelves behind talking heads.
But what we’re watching isn’t a book experience in itself. It isn’t ours. We’re playing voyeur to somebody else’s memorial function. And it grates a little. This spring, I conducted one-on-one consultations with writers by Zoom. It was gratifying work, but every time I clicked the “End Meeting” button, I thought about how much I wished I was doing it in person. Live isn’t “alive.” I’m making experiences bereft of memorial function. There’s little I’ll be able to go back to a year from now and touch and remember.
Memorials of the last major pandemic, the 1918 influenza, are scarce, particularly in book form. Writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald sidestepped it; contemporary magazine and newspaper accounts were rare. As John M. Barry explained in his fine 2004 account, “The Great Influenza,” there were complicated reasons for that. The war effort created a jingoistic media that underplayed and even ignored the crisis. The flu’s lethality and speed seemed to shock the culture silent, forcing people indoors with few ways to communicate. The carnage was, it seems, almost too swift and incomprehensible to put on paper.
We’ve fared better this time around, at least as far as connection went. But I suspect the book world will look back on 2020 — and most of 2021 — as an eerily quiet time. What we’ll remember most vividly are the stray moments when we could connect physical bookstores and libraries to the books we got shipped to us or picked up curbside. Our shelves will have to do the remembering for us. My book club never went away, but it won’t exist until it feels safe to walk into it again.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
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