A short quarantine reading list

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Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.

Three. 

Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.

On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.

The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)

Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.

Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.

Not reading material for these times.

After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.

This is a special occasion.

So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.

After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.

Disparate, yet equally essential.

All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.

And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.

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28 Lockdown Days Later

Sometime ago, in the hazy days when freedom still seemed like a possibility, however faint, I wrote a pile of rubbish.

Writing rubbish isn’t an occupational hazard, it’s inevitable. Most writing is crap in the aesthetic/artistic sense: unrefined, hasty, careless, lacking finesse. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of anything I write falls in that category and, for the sake of sanity, has to be accepted as ‘good enough’ otherwise I would never make a deadline.

The article for which I need to apologize isn’t that kind of rubbish. It is pure, unmitigated cringe. My strong inclination is to wipe the pile of twaddle titled ‘10 things to do on coronavirus lockdown‘ from the internet and, if it were possible, from my memory.

What kind of grade-A asshole writes, in the face of a global pandemic, things like:

Always wanted a capsule wardrobe? This is the moment to dig through those chests of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards and shoe boxes and sort the wheat from the chaff. If this current crisis demonstrates anything it’s that certainties aren’t. Stop holding on to that sale-rack outfit you bought for the occasion that never happened.

or

Do something with your fingers that isn’t typing. Do you draw? Paint? Sculpt? Throw pottery? Play an instrument? Knit? Quilt? Scrapbook? If you do — awesome. Now you have time to throw yourself into it. Get into the flow and lose a few hours, see what you can create.

The smug wanna-be positivity MindBodyGreen-lite-esque-ness of that makes me want to crawl inside my skin and pop my eyes out from the inside.

What moron writes that?

Er, this one. 

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My words stare at me: the image of myself I don’t want to see.

Worse than silly, worse than naive, worse than tone-deaf, worse than irritating.

Phony. Forced. What she thinks someone (or some algorithm) wants to hear.

Let’s be clear: I have never in my life looked on the bright side. I have never seen the silver lining before the cloud. I have never thought the glass was half-full.

As a kid, I believed neither in Santa nor happiness. Not much has changed.

Though I am conscious of and grateful for the many good things in my life my default setting is not optimism.  My primary emotions are boredom, frustration, fear, and disappointment.

Before COVID-19 I worried about dying without having accomplished anything. Now, after 27 days of my own company, unrelieved by the mental-health saving drudgery of work and other people, that meaningless death feels inevitable — and  my own fault.

The inescapable fear is that if I were a person who could take my own vapid advice (“If you aren’t already studying something, check out online learning resources”) maybe I would have something to show for 40 years on earth. But I’m not and, it seems, I don’t.

No doubt some people are using quarantine to repaint their cupboards, learn Danish or perfect their eclair recipe. Whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.

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Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

Meanwhile, I’ve purged zero items from my wardrobe. I’ve read zero books. I’ve written zero letters. I’ve had sex zero times. I’ve made zero playlists.

What have I been doing?

  • Checking the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map.
  • Reading the Spanish lockdown rules the way hungry people check the fridge: hoping something new will have appeared since the last time.
  • Checking my bank account, hoping something will have appeared since last time.
  • Crying.
  • Dropping thing, having meltdowns then crying.
  • Being cold.
  • Having nightmares.
  • Watching Father Ted.
  • Trying, unsuccessfully, to remember what having freedom, or a libido, felt like.
  • Running up and down my driveway.
  • Being angry.

There is so much to be angry about. I’m angry at myself, at global capitalism, at politicians, at the old ladies in the grocery store who travel in packs, at the weather, at my inability to concentrate, at my helplessness, at my writing skills, at my ex-boss, at the banks, at timing, at circumstances, at the whole stinking croaking aching joyless goddamn mess.

Whenever, if ever, we get out of it, I’d like very much to see my friends, go to the beach, go to a gig, hug someone without worrying one of us will be mortally sick as a result.

Until then, I’m hanging on by my fingernails, not using this as an opportunity for self-improvement. My sincerest apologies for suggesting otherwise.