Reading and the Pandemic

by Royee Zvi Atedgi

In his 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction”, Philip Roth set forth a problem about writing during great social upheaval that I feel parallels the complications and challenges of reading during the pandemic:

“It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Substitute “novelist” with “reader”, “envy” with “despair”, “talents” with “desire” and “culture” with the “pandemic” itself, and the passage reflects precisely what I experienced in the last year as a reader. In short, the results of the pandemic––the isolation, the severing of human closeness, the loss of lives and life as it was––made reading difficult. What was once an essential counterweight activity to the humdrum routine seemed, now that the stakes were so high elsewhere, of little importance. The enormity outstripped my imagination. And you need a healthy imagination in order to read.

The first weeks of the pandemic were perfect for introverts––finally, a real excuse to cancel plans. I read more. By mid-April, however, time reading fiction was eaten away by reading articles, symptoms, studies, and punditry. I masqueraded my dread as up-to-the-minute expertise. The television was on at all hours, and I’d sit there watching refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals, watching the death toll climb, until the daily satiation had rendered both fear and creativity numb. The strangeness was on a magnitude that anesthetized the mind and arrested the personal consciousness.

Part of the problem, too, was my traveling back and forth between America and Israel––dodging lockdowns and rising infection rates. That lack of a home base was terrible for my life as a reader. I spent the better part of two semesters in rural Pennsylvania, taking classes with peers in Israel over crushing estrangements like Zoom.

My reading brain narrowed, and where before I’d engorge on a fat novel, I was now searching the shelves for skinny books of poetry. It was what I could handle given the anxieties, real or imagined, that were part of life during the pandemic. My economy of words shrunk to stanzas. That’s all my focus and sense of doom would allow. I read more slowly, more carefully, in a way more evocative of childhood than adulthood. I confess I hadn’t read much poetry before the pandemic, nor had I found much cause or circumstance to write it. Poetry to me is difficult. The precise attention to beauty, to mystery and metaphor, is an altogether different reading experience than approaching a novel or short story.

I’d like to think reading poetry during the pandemic assuaged some guilt for not getting things done in my own realm. I had stalled on writing more of my thesis (a novel), ceased reading novels, ceased reading short stories. Everything overwhelming in so uncertain a time, where the mind strained to grasp the situation could––like putting blinders on a horse––be bypassed and focused toward the granular, ephemeral distillate of poems. I even, over the course of the year, managed to write one or two.