During this season of coronavirus and isolation, Jerry Becker is rereading P.G. Wodehouse’s “A Bounty of Blandings,” an English tale of an earl, his prize-winning pig and his demanding family.
The WSU Libraries system administrator takes comfort from Wodehouse’s trusted humor and the words of fellow author Evelyn Waugh: “Wodehouse is an anodyne to annoyances. He’s a tonic for those suffering from bearable but burdensome loads of boredom, from jadedness of outlook and dinginess of soul.”
“What I like most is his use of language, comic turn of phrase, whimsical point of view and ability to find humor in the everyday life of the early 20th century,” Becker said. “When reading his stuff, I find myself applying Wodehouse quotes and ‘isms’ to circumstances in our daily life here at home with my wife. It makes us laugh!”
For many now, a reading journey can bring much-needed laughter; feed a hunger to understand; and create an allowable human connection amid the restrictions of social distancing. Here, then, is a reading list from WSU Libraries faculty and staff that can’t help but be influenced by these strange, anxious, lonely times.
We have been here before
Several of those polled about their reading pursuits found themselves delving, not surprisingly, into pandemics of the past. Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections rare books cataloger Julie King is reading “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe; the novel, published in 1722, concerns the plague epidemic in London in 1665.
Other possibilities, courtesy of scholarly communication librarian Talea Anderson, are the 1947 novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus and the 1992 science fiction novel “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis. “‘Doomsday Book’ is an especially haunting retelling of how people experienced loss on its most intimate level during the spread of the bubonic plague,” Anderson said.
Erica England, first-year experience librarian, chose “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” (2012) by Carol Rifka Brunt. The book is set in 1987 during the AIDS scare and tells the story of how a young teenage girl mourns the loss of her gay uncle to AIDS, while learning to accept who she is and who he was.
“Although I’ve read this book before, it’s been a few years, and I thought now would be the perfect time for another reading of it,” England said. “Ultimately, it’s about profound loss and the giant grief that accompanies it. But it’s also about finding yourself in that loss and finding your way through it. Above all, it shows how compassion can make us whole again. And I think during this time, we need compassion more than anything else in the world.”
Special collections librarian Greg Matthews said he read a review of “Florence Under Siege” (2019) by John Henderson about a month ago. The book details how the city of Florence handled plague for a year in the early 17th century.
The city health department, the Sanita, consulted with peers in other cities such as Milan and Venice to contain the plague by closing the city; establishing lazzarettos, or quarantine stations, in civic and church spaces; and providing daily rations of food and drink for the entire populace.
But the picture wasn’t entirely sunny, Matthews said. One of the more appalling dimensions of life during plague in Florence was the perception that poor people were too selfish and stupid to discourage the spread of disease to their betters. Also, Jews were suspected of being plague vectors, maybe malicious ones.
“So it’s not as though people were behaving at their best,” he said. “People carried on, insisted upon living their lives by dancing, gossiping and courting.
“The book uses contemporary eyewitness accounts to tremendous effect, describing the empty streets of the city and how certain citizens were taken into custody for (being accused of) endangering their neighbors by talking to passers-by through windows or staying with friends,” Matthews said. “It’s been illuminating and affirming. For a book about death and dying, it is filled with life. If the story it tells has heroes, then they are compassion and human ingenuity.”
Comforting and humorous reads
Comfort takes many forms during times like these. Trevor Bond, associate dean of digital initiatives and special collections, is reading WSU English professor Buddy Levy’s 2019 book “Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition.” Bond bought a copy at a local reading Levy gave shortly before coronavirus concerns halted campus activities.
“The vivid descriptions of men living in close quarters in subzero temperatures in months of complete darkness somehow bring me comfort in this period of social distancing and isolation,” Bond said. “Buddy is a terrific writer and a great colleague.”
For Talea Anderson, our current circumstances remind her of a similar experience of isolation when she taught for four months in Costa Rica—and the books that helped her.
“I experienced an incredibly lonely time when all I really had for comfort were books,” she said. “Two books that resonated with me were ‘Refuge’ [1991, by Terry Tempest Williams] and ‘Crossing to Safety’ [1987, by Wallace Stegner].”
Neither of them is explicitly about quarantine or isolation, but the characters in both novels are struggling to come to terms with the deaths of loved ones (and in Williams’ case, the added loss of reliable comfort in natural settings). Both books are pretty melancholy, but the writing is beautiful—comforting in itself—and I found it cathartic as well to see characters grappling with the same emotions I was feeling.”
Development director Dawn Butler suffered an initial disappointment in her reading journey. (“I can say with a high degree of confidence the 2019 sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ would likely make anyone of conscience more anxious—not the best decision I’ve made.”) But she has since downloaded “Three Men in a Boat,” a humorous account of a two-week boating holiday on the River Thames by English writer Jerome K. Jerome, published in 1889.
“I’ve also started ‘The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’ [2019, by Juliet Grames] and like it,” Butler said. “One sentence that resonated with me is ‘… I will offer my opinion that it is the moral responsibility of the incompetent to identify their own weaknesses and not accept positions of power.’”
A few final selections
Owen Science and Engineering Library evening lead Libby McKeighen suggests any nonfiction book by Sam Kean. He is the author of such books as “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” (2010) and “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of The Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery” (2014).
“They are science/history and really informative, but they are also engaging and funny,” McKeighen said. “I myself have had them distract me during particularly hard times in my life.”
Jen Saulnier, undergraduate services librarian, recommends the 2019 book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb. “This is a great read for anyone interested in mental health, humanity and empathy—all extremely important topics at the moment,” she said.
Human resource coordinator Bonny Boyan suggests “Not Tonight Josephine” (2016) by George Mahood. “It would be an especially great read for someone who wishes they could be traveling instead of stuck at home,” she said. “It is laugh-out-loud funny. I might just need to read it again.”
A last suggestion comes from yours truly: “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death” (2019) by funeral director Caitlin Doughty. The author of two other bestsellers, creator of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and founder of The Order of the Good Death answers questions from children about death, dead bodies and decomposition.
As Doughty writes in the book, “All death questions are good death questions, but the most direct and most provocative questions come from kids.”