If you own a book, you are never alone.
Reading has taken on a different meaning for a lot of us these days; it’s how we leave our homes while staying rooted in our armchairs, how we travel, how we meet new people and spend time in intimate connection with others. (Introverts, I suspect, have fared a little better during lockdown than our more gregarious counterparts. A quiet, unassuming cheer to all of us.)
For the past few years, I’ve offered a review roundup of new books in late spring, to kick off Summer Book Bingo, presented by Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures, and to celebrate a new season of reading. But this time feels different. For one thing, a lot of new books have shifted their dates; many publishers would prefer to see their titles get a splashy rollout in late summer or fall, rather than now, when authors can’t tour and bookstores are closed.
Moreover, my reading life feels weirdly scattered these days. The discipline of focusing solely on the latest titles feels impossible; my eyes, over recent weeks, kept straying to other books in my stacks. Said stacks are, quite literally, right in front of me: I’m working from home these days, on a desk that under normal circumstances is covered with piles of books. Weeks ago, I cleared out just enough of them so that I could squeeze in a laptop; it sits surrounded by stacks of books on three sides, as if hunkering down in a literary fortress. Some of these are books I’ve read, some are not. All of them came to me in some way that I remember: that one from a used-book store buying binge; that one lent by my mom; that one sent to the office by a publisher; that one from childhood — all muddled together, new and old.
Sitting here not long ago, writing my Seattle Times stories and drinking Diet Coke and procrastinating (same thing I do at the office, but there I have a little more space and fewer cat interruptions), two titles seemed to flash at me from the piles: Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” Both were Pulitzer Prize winners (2015 and 2017, respectively); both were widely acclaimed national bestsellers; both were paperbacks that I picked up ages ago, thinking I would like to read them. And then I never seemed to get around to reading them, until now.
You have, quite possibly, devoured both of these books long ago, and you surely don’t need me to tell you that both of them are lyrical and heartbreaking and beautifully written, or that I read them both in a strange state of suspended animation, transported to a time and place far away. But what I was struck by, in these two very different historical novels — one set in 1930s-40s Europe, as two young people experience the horrors of World War II; one set in the Civil War era South, as a brave enslaved woman fights her way to freedom via a not-metaphorical secret railway network — was one detail: what it meant to its characters to be able to read.
Cora, the fugitive in “Underground Railroad,” hungrily reads almanacs while hidden captive in an attic; they contain, for her, “an entire world.” A fellow character, Caesar, treasures a hidden copy of “Gulliver’s Travels,” a souvenir from a time before enslavement when he had many books; he frequently seeks it out just to hold it, to remind him of better days. (A quote from the book that stayed with me: “Now a page here and there, in the golden afternoon light, sustained him.”) Marie-Laure, the blind French girl at the center of “All the Light We Cannot See,” has as her most prized possession a Braille copy of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”; she reads it obsessively, lost in its adventures, as her fingers “walk the tightrope of sentences.” For all of them, a book was company; a symbol of another life, of something better waiting — of something else.
The pages of literature are full of readers, if you look for them. (Funny how this doesn’t necessarily translate to other arts; television shows, for example, rarely show people watching TV.) When I think back on the literary heroines of my childhood, I see readers. Think of Jo March, sitting in an apple tree crying over “The Wide, Wide World” (a sentimental novel from 1850, often called “America’s first bestseller”). Or Francie Nolan in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” forgetting her worries while curled up on her building’s fire escape with a cushion, a snack and a precious library book. Or Harriet M. Welsch, in “Harriet the Spy,” reading under the covers with a flashlight until her nanny stops her in what’s clearly an every-night ritual.
And once you start looking for readers on the page, you find them everywhere. Last month, I read and loved Nell Stevens’ “The Victorian and the Romantic,” a memoir inspired by the author’s love for the work of 19th-century author Elizabeth Gaskell. Stevens dreams of writing letters to Gaskell, and getting long, delicious letters back; she struggles to write, but she’d rather be reading.
Even the few new books that I’ve read lately seem to fit right in. One day recently, in a burst of maybe-I-should-try-something-different, I picked up Grady Hendrix’s new book “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.” It’s a very funny horror novel that kicks off with one woman’s book club dilemma: tiresome, micromanaged “Literary Guild,” or small, gossipy true-crime-reading group? No suspense about which one she chooses; just speculation about whether “The Bridges of Madison County” is really about a serial killer (it is, right?) and some gruesome vampire-related mayhem, which our heroine deftly handles by consulting Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and visiting her local bookstore, as one should.
And “Afterlife,” the new novel from Julia Alvarez (“In the Time of the Butterflies”) has at its center a retired English professor named Antonia, a recent widow who lives with her memories and with quotes from the authors she’s taught and loved — Tolstoy, Dickinson, Kingsolver, Eliot, Auden, Rilke — for company. As she reconstructs her life, with the unplanned complication of a pregnant, undocumented teenager showing up, it’s those voices that help sustain her; “art reminds us,” Antonia muses, “that we’re all connected.”
As we tentatively step through these strangely quiet days and months, that connection is part of what’s keeping me sane: imagining a city of readers, isolating from each other and yet reading as one — and within those pages is another web of readers, given life in our imaginations. It’s a thick, shimmering tapestry of words and lives and adventures; a comforting community, in these days of solitude. Happy spring, dear fellow readers. May you be finding magic, and solace, on the page.