Stephen Hunter

Reading in the Time of Cholera

(Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash)

With America on the cusp of another lockdown, reading will become the primary occupation for many. But what author suits the time we’re living in?

 

In a dilapidated parking lot next to an adult video store called “Fantasy Island,” across the street from a crematorium and down the road from a penitentiary, the Trump era came to a suitable close. Meanwhile, the non-fantasy of a surge in the coronavirus here in the U.S. makes the return of lockdowns all but a certainty. So now, with the election mostly behind us, the most desperate question becomes: “What do I read?”

Not everyone reads or, more accurately, likes to read. However, since you’ve made it to this sentence, let’s assume you’re someone who doesn’t mind tracking your eyes over a line of print. A good read, hell, even a mediocre one, can at least be a bridge to get to when you can eat again.

In the face of shuttered restaurants, spectral movie theatres, darkened workplaces, deserted bars and clubs, haunted museums; absent a gathering with friends and in deep withdrawal from binge worthy TV, the question that remains is, “What do I read to get me through all this?”

Many choose a book they’ve always wanted to get to but just never had the time. War and Peace, for instance, is a popular choice. There are even multiple, online sites that are designed to help you start, keep going, and finish Tolstoy’s tome. There are also upticks in people claiming that now is the time to attempt an assault on Mount James Joyce or Marcel Proust.

So, size and reputation seem to be deciding factors; it’s become a Niagara of “shoulds”—in the sense of, “I should read this before the onset of that text-less eternity known as my own death.”

Joyce, Tolstoy, Proust. All worthy choices and, no doubt, have the added benefit of getting you all muscled up for when dinner parties rev up again.

 

When your world has been reduced to the size of a pea, it’s not a good idea to be reminded of life’s near-impossible riches.

 

Let’s, however, just stop and think about this for a moment. Tolstoy is actually an odd choice for these times; as would Shakespeare or Dickens. They all deploy these massive casts of characters, brimming with the spectacle and froth of LIFE; all beautifully drawn and delineated. However, the sheer volume of different lives living away, different sensibilities sensibilitating, in war, in love, in peace, in bed, in court, all just makes our isolation feel worse. When your world has been reduced to the size of a pea, it’s not a good idea to be reminded of life’s near-impossible riches. These over-abundant greats simply do not speak to the stuffy, submarine restrictions many of us are forced to live in.

Tuning his frequency to the interior monologue makes Joyce seem a possible, more apt companion. But he can make you feel bad about yourself. Somehow a pathetic, cuckolded putz from Dublin has a richer inner life than you do; plus his thoughts and quotidian dreams are tied to and amplified by Homeric mucky-mucks. And even approaching Joyce is, of course, predicated on your being able to understand a damn word of what you’re reading.

There’s more hope perhaps in Proust. He spins out elaborate worlds from the solitude of a tiny, cork-lined room and the insomnia of his lonely bed. One remembered nibble of a biscuit dunked in tea and, boom, a turn-of-the-century, Parisian phantasmagoria. But his remembrances are all of a high society past; rich people with leisure and francs to burn, everyone eye-balling each other in a musky haze of confused sexuality. The rest of us think of, say, a youthful sip of Kool-Aid and suddenly recall an excruciatingly boring Aunt, beclouded in cheap scent, endlessly repeating uneventful tales of personal glory. Plus, Kool-Aid can make you think of that mass, cult suicide in the jungles of Guyana. No no, Proust won’t do.

But there is another possibility. A chronicler of blind men tied to their rocking chairs; of couples who live in separate waste bins; of lonely women slowly sinking into piles of sand; of men relegated to apartments that might have once belonged to a mother who might or might not have passed away (did you miss the funeral?). Homeless men, solitaires, who concoct elaborate games out of stones in one trouser pocket that need to be sucked on in a precise order (and no more than once) and, turn and turn again, transferred over to the other.

Finally, in our time of COVID here in the USA, we find an empathic reverberation in his most famous lines:

“Let’s go.”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“We’re waiting for Godot.”

“Ah!”

 

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