Before the pandemic arrived, I got a copy of “Unfinished Business,” Vivian Gornick’s new book about the benefits of rereading favorite literature. Gornick couldn’t have known how timely her book would be. With many of us stuck at home to stem the coronavirus, a lot of readers are probably fetching treasured titles from the shelves and giving them another look.
Although Gornick’s principal subject is rereading good books, she writes more broadly about reading as a force for calm in an often confusing world. It’s an especially important message as we weather the social and economic storms of COVID-19.
Why do people read — even or especially when times are bad? What Gornick tells readers about her own reading life provides a clue: “It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work — that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words — it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers. Sometimes I think it alone provides me with courage for life, and has from earliest childhood.”
Gornick’s words are a powerful reminder that reading isn’t just a passive thing in bad times; it can help us clarify our view of life and navigate angry waters. George Orwell said as much in confronting the terrors of World War II and its aftermath. He thought good writing could empower us to think clearly, making us more resilient in confronting grave challenges.
My own reading this month has also included “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson’s new book about how Winston Churchill rallied England during the bombing of London during World War II. You might remember Larson for previous bestsellers such as “The Devil in the White City” and “Dead Wake.” Larson is a vivid writer with a gift for nonfiction narrative, and his story about Churchill has some obvious insights into crisis management we could use right now. I’ll probably be revisiting “The Splendid and the Vile” in future columns, but get it now and see for yourself. Like all the books I’m mentioning here, it can be purchased online in print or e-book formats, a plus for the homebound. Some local bookstores across the country are offering delivery services, too, so give your neighborhood bookshop a call and explore the options. Area libraries, though closed for visits, are also making books and other materials available online.
To reconnect with the social experience of bookstores that until recently we took for granted, I’ve also been reading “The Diary of a Bookseller,” Shaun Bythell’s funny account of running his bookshop in Scotland. An American edition of the sequel, “Confessions of a Bookseller” will be published next month.
It felt good to sit with Bythell’s book on my lap and laugh, something we’re not doing much these days. Here’s hoping for happy reading across Louisiana and the world — and happier, healthier times.