Returning to books
Returning to books
In March 2020 I read.
It was easy. I was furloughed and had all the time in the world.
I made plans to read the books that had remained closed on my bookshelves for years, but then my anxiety kicked in. I could not sit and read, the words on the page blurring into a smudge of black ink.
I mourned the loss of reading and my ability to disappear into a story not my own. Reading had been a defining feature of my identity since I first learned how to decipher words on pages. Now, it was gone.
My anxiety spiralled out of control until I broke down in November after months of meltdowns and tears.
To escape myself, I retreated into soothing worlds known and loved. I watched Paterson and returned to William Carlos Williams poetry. I read the lines of everyday life again and again. The short poems held my attention before it could slip. In a world of trees, plums, city life, and cats, I found part of myself coming back to me.
In January 2021, I tentatively picked up Fair Play by Tove Jansson. The chapters were so small, I could teach my brain to focus quietly again.
I followed this by The Electricity of Every Living Things by Katherine May and plunged into her life. It wasn’t difficult to focus when I was reading about myself, my descent into the abyss, and my hesitant climb back into a life newly redefined. I read and read and read. It gave me hope that I could read again, hope that I could find myself again.
I purchased a collection of Maigret stories by Georges Siménon for my e-reader. It is a universe I know well, one that defined my childhood and part of my relationship with my grand father. I could plod along sticking hot summers and damp winters witnessing human life as Maigret sipped beers and spirits.
And like that, I found I could read again.
Paper words were difficult if not within the boundaries of the known but audiobooks were fine. I crisscrossed the city from north to south and back again for my hour long commute. I devoured words. They poured into my ears, resonated through my brain, and I saw once again stories not my own. I detoured from my commute route to prolong the pleasure of listening to Darius trying to make sense of his life and depression (Darius The Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram). I laughed as Stephen Fry told tales of beloved Greek Mythology (Heroes and Troy by Stephen Fry). I found familiarity and excitement in yet another arthurian retelling (Once and Future by A.R. Capetta and Cori McCarthy). And then I heard about John Green new book, The Anthropocene Reviewed. I ordered it from a local bookshop, apprehensive at the idea of reading on paper. This felt oddly manageable in a book of non-ficton, a book I could take essay per essay, trick my brain into focusing for a few pages at a time without having to hold onto a long narrative.
I picked it up on my way back home, Once and Future still playing in my ears. I observed the book in my hand as the bookseller handed it over. It was undeniably physical, unyielding in its shape and weight. I shoved it into my pannier before I could linger on questions of fear and mistakes.
Back home, I let it rest on my bedside table. It joined the ranks of my ever growing pile of books balancing precariously with stories started and abandoned the year before.
Once and Future finished, the last of the Maigret stories in the collection read, I was faced with The Anthropocene Reviewed. I picked it up from the tower of words, opened it, and began to read.
I read one page, then another, and another, and could not stop. One essay turned into two, into three, and before I knew it, I was skimming through the acknowledgement on the last page. Finished, I shelved it in my bookcase, its bright purple and pink cover clashing with the duller greens, blues, and white of its neighbours. I liked the pop of colour like a spark of life returning. It felt like a cliché but I didn’t care. I could read on paper again.
Invigorated by this feeling, I turned to a collection of Japanese short stories borrowed from my brother in 2019 (Tokyo Electrique edited and translated by Corinne Quentin). It rekindled a love of reading in translation and a fascination with Japan. I took to Twitter to ask for Japanese authors recommendations. Titles flooded my notifications and my reserve limit at the library was quickly met. Books trickled in, my job changed, and I found myself with less time in the morning and evening to read. The trade off was an hour long lunch during which I could switch off from spreadsheets, and the unstoppable flow of data. A time of my own to claim and use as I wished. I chose to read. I opened paper books and lost myself.
Occasionally I would check my watch, making sure I was still within my allocated time. Usually I was. I could not believe how long an hour to read was. I had forgotten how easily I could get carried away in universes shaped by other minds. Yoko Ogawa warmed me with a story of mathematics and humanity (The Housekeeper and the Professor). Mieko Kawakami stopped me in my tracks at the sheer delight of sentences stringed so well (kudos to translators Sam Bett and David Boyd), they took my breath away (Breasts and Eggs). Sayaka Murata terrified me with a horrifying tale of trauma and survival in Earthlings. This book out of all the ones read in 2021 reminded me of how far I had come. I was able to live with such uncomfortable stories again without drowning.
The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson finally arrived on the reserved shelves of the library after a six months wait. I dropped everything and set sail in a life well known through endless retellings but never read from the original. Emily Wilson’s translation astounded me with its modern feel, its vibrancy, and energy, proving to me once again that so called high literature does not have to be. It can simply be a jolly good adventure.
As the year came to an end, I followed in the real and mythical land of Siberia with The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophie Roberts. I travelled with Sophie in a quest for pianos in a place that had fascinated me since I had first heard of Vladivostok age 10. I would repeat the name over and over back then, having just learned about the Trans-Siberian railway. Moscow had felt within reach, a part of my Western world, and in a simple train journey I could reach the other worldly Vladivostok on the opposite end of the world. I would be in Asia, not far from equally entrancing Mongolia, Japan, China, Tibet, and more. Countries and cultures I could not fathom. Places so far on the map, I could not reach them with a spread of my fingers from home to as far as they would stretch. Countries so big, my little hands could not cover them unlike Europe which could be swallowed by two open palms.
I dreamed of travel with Sophie Roberts as I read her words by a wood fire in a hut in the midst of the Brecon Beacons. I cried out of sheer joy at the spark of reading come back, at the joy of having cycled to this hut, at the fire in my lungs from my asthma, at everything I had lost and left behind in a world gone, at being alive and human again.