Reading during the pandemic

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Getting restless while you shelter in place for the third or fourth week? Tired of wearing that mask when you walk outdoors? Wondering if the world will ever return to its pre-COVID-19 state? I've been experiencing all of those feelings, and in addition, the local library is closed and the Cambridge bookstores where I love to browse are dark as well. So, here is an idea that might help you get through the social isolation and sheltering in place that is likely to be our lot for the next several weeks or months: Read the books on your own shelves.

While many of the usual sources that recommend fascinating new books to read continue to arrive online or at your doorstep, the familiar, local sources for fulfilling those dreams are not available. Yes, e-books and audiobooks are still easily obtained, but they have always seemed to me like a poor substitute for that special feel of the weight of the book in my lap, the pleasure of turning pages, and the satisfying feeling as one reads a real book and the left hand portion of the book grows while the right side shrinks to nothing.

Rather than despair, I suggest that you follow the lead of Susan Hill, a 78-year-old British writer, publisher, and literary critic whose wonderful book `Howard's End is On the Landing' appeared ten years ago. In it, Hill describes how she spent an entire year reading only the books she found on her own shelves, eschewing for 12 months the joys of buying books, borrowing them from the library, or reading books sent to her for reviews. She discovered the pleasures of that approach by chance while searching for the eponymous E.M. Forster novel and finding "at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred (books), that I had never read After that came the books I had read, knew I owned, and realized that I wanted to read again. It marked the journey through my own library. I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a life-time of reading, and to map this house of volumes."

So began Hill's year of reading only books from her own home library, an excellent option for our current situation as we shelter in place, hunker down, and are limited largely to what we have at hand.

Hill's vivid and candid impressions about favorite authors and their books that she discovered in her house while occasionally offbeat are interesting and informed. She ends her book with a list of what she refers to as the "Final Forty", those books in her library that "I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life".

Many of the authors and volumes in her "Final Forty" will be familiar to you — Dickens, Hardy, Naipaul, Trollope, Woolf, Forster, James, Greene, Wharton, Wodehouse, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Auden — while others will be less familiar and perhaps even unknown, such as F. M. Mayor, Francis Kilvert, Robin Bruce Lockhart, John McGahern, Arnold Bennett and Michael Mayne. Hill is solidly and unabashedly Anglocentric and partial to books published throughout the 20th century, but her choices all warrant consideration.

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I'm sure that you have several of these books on your shelves, but if you don't and you are searching for just one on her list to order from Amazon, I'd highly recommend Michael Mayne's "Learning to Dance." Mayne, who died in 2006, was an Anglican minister and the rector of Westminster. He wrote a rather remarkable book in which he mingles explanations of his religious faith with quite cogent and readable descriptions of our natural world from quantum mechanics at the subatomic level to the cosmology of our expanding universe. Reading his weaving of faith and science in this readable and fascinating volume was a wonderful gift from Hill.

The inclusion of Mayne's book indicates how idiosyncratic Hill's list is, representing an individual's preferences, choices, and personal history. Hill observes that "The books I have read have helped to form me, (and) probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books, and only the same books as me. So, just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my own literary DNA." That's a lovely metaphor and a further stimulus to explore your own shelves and find those books that have made you what you are today as well as those yet to be read that will contribute to the "you" of tomorrow.

Good hunting as you explore your own shelves and perhaps even make your own Final Forty list. You can find Susan Hill's Final Forty list on my website: https://epsteinreads.com/susan-hills-final-forty/.

My own list of the forty books that I think would be good reading for this challenging time can be found at www.EpsteinReads.com/essays .

Stay safe and be well.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at www.EpsteinReads where you will also find more than 1000 book reviews and ideas about what to read next.


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