Books in the time of quarantine

By: Anis Rezaei

“Books keep us sane.” We all are familiar with these words. Yet they have never been as applicable as they are right now, under our current circumstances. With cities and towns going into lockdown one after another, with social-distancing and staying home regulations getting enforced stricter day after day, with the fear and unprecedented uncertainty that we all face, we need books more than ever to keep us sane. Books provide a sanctuary these days. A place where one can escape to seek protection from the ongoing and unending crisis that has engulfed us all, however temporary.

From the scary situation out there, what better than a refuge that in addition to offering protection makes us sane? From dawn to dusk, we read numerous articles, analysis, reflections, criticisms and more about the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not just the headlines and newspapers that are occupied by this outbreak, it also has successfully penetrated our lives and our normal conversations. It is impossible to establish a conversation with someone that doesn’t lead to this dreadful topic.

One of the things that we all may have realised during the past few weeks and since the spread of the virus is that as information about the virus proliferates so does misinformation. And it is the proliferation of misinformation that makes us susceptible to panic, fear and paranoia – things that we are strictly and consistently advised to avoid. We have seen how panic and fear impacted people’s behaviour in response to the pandemic, from the unthoughtful widescale panic buying and stockpiling of food and even medicine to our desperate search for a cure. Where is best to take refuge from all these, and where can we take the best advantage of such a time? I suppose it is books. Immersing ourselves into books is particularly invaluable activity these days. But why “these days” carry the emphasis?

We read because we find peace in reading.

The answer is in the nature of these days. If under normal circumstances, I am to be asked why I read? My answer would be, ‘because I like reading.’ That simple. But these days my answer to such question is entirely different. These days I don’t read simply because I like reading, but I read in order to detach myself from the harsh reality that has engulfed humanity, even if it is for an hour or two. I immerse myself in a book in order to distance myself from the influx of information that has hardly got anything optimistic to convey. Every morning when I wake up, I turn on the BBC Global News Podcast, and listen to it with great patience and greed, hoping to hear something positive and every morning I am faced with yet another level of catastrophe that is determined to uproot many lives at an extraordinary accelerated pace. With all these, the prospects for better days in near future becomes gloomier and hopes wane. We shall surpass this crisis, but crucial questions still loom large: how will we formulate our paths in the aftermath of this crisis? How will this crisis change our outlook towards life, society, nature, and each other? What type of people will we emerge out of this crisis? Reading can help us ponder on these questions, juggle with the crisis, and think about who we are and where are set to go.

The answer is also in how hard the crisis hit different individuals, communities and countries. Indeed, it is difficult time for all of us, but this difficulty is not equally distributed across the spectrum. The hardship of these days is experienced distinctively depending on a variety of factors such as economic well-being, access to good health care system, safe and educated neighbourhood that strictly adhere to the quarantine measures, the intra-family relationships, ability to remain connected to society such as social media skills, and many more. Connecting with others is becoming more important than any other time. We can connect with people from a wide diversity of circumstances and backgrounds by reading books. But there is yet another critical factor that does not receive much attention, at least not as much as to satisfy its significance: the ability to read.

Yes, “Books connect us”, and yes, “Books keep us sane.” But what about those people who cannot read? How are they to keep sane? How do they remain connected to society? Of course, we are unique and our coping mechanism under a crisis as the current one is also unique. Hence, reading does not necessarily have to be the best coping mechanism for all of us. But to be able to read is nuanced: it presents to you the choice to read or not to read. And with not being able to read you are stripped off the right to make that simple choice. It is the inability to make that simple choice that should concern us.  Every time that I curl up with a book, I steal myself from the chaos that’s going on in the real world. And I emerge with a better mindset, clearer vision and more hopeful spirit after every reading session. But don’t we simply take this privilege for granted?

This makes me think of those people who cannot read and cannot take pleasure in reading. It is deeply frustrating to know that many people in the world are devoid of basic skills to seek comfort by utilising them, such as reading skills. It is even more frustrating to see how we take everything for granted, including the ability to read. And worst of all, we will continue to take these things for granted unless we learn a critical lesson from this pandemic and start critically evaluating our behaviours, our attitudes, and ourselves.

We read because we find peace in reading. We read because we can afford to read. And most importantly we read because we can read. In our unfair world where reading has turned into a privilege, let’s at least not take it for granted.