In This Moment of Solitude, Books Can Be Our Passports

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The challenges and anxieties of authors shepherding books into the world pale before the ravages of a global pandemic. Nothing puts a professional disappointment into perspective like worrying about the health and safety of your loved ones. Still, the writers I know — in between calling their older relatives and fetching groceries for immunocompromised neighbors — are reeling in reaction to canceled book tours and the grief of knowing that something you have worked so hard on may miss its chance to find an audience. There is uncertainty about the future of our industry, and all industries. Strangest to me is finding myself at home still, pacing the same old floor, now joined in this stationary, solitary routine by everyone I know.

Spring seems like a particularly strange time to be told to sit still indoors because it’s normally a season of so much blooming, coming out of hibernation, gathering together, maypoles, celebrations, graduations. This is typically the season in which we open our windows, exit our homes and re-enter the world, go on spring break, plan summer travel. It feels like an unnatural time to be forced back inside and to reduce our perimeters of movement to our own houses, traversing only the path to the grocery store or pharmacy.

In the past few days, sitting at a table near a window and looking out at a row of peony buds slowly pushing up from the blank ground, I’ve been flipping through books, which is how I rediscovered this passage from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s 1943 novel about a girl growing up in Williamsburg in the first two decades of the 20th century:

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

This passage reminds me of why I read as a child: So much of childhood involved boredom, lying on the rug on my stomach — as I am right now — wishing I could see more of the vast world than was available to me as a 7-year-old. The reason I fell in love with books is that they were a passport to other places and lives. Books mimicked travel. In a book, I could go anywhere and be anyone. I haven’t read with that primary motivation in a long time, but it feels especially attractive again.

Now, for whatever undetermined period of time this will be, I am in a house with five other people and a dog. There’s a ladybug infestation in the house; our stillness is made more noticeable by their motion and endless proliferation, by the constant fluttering of wings. It hasn’t even been a week and we’re already bored, lying on the floor, reaching for books.