Should I be so lucky as to reach old age, I imagine I will be asked what I did during the pandemic year, when a virus set fire to the fabric of our communal lives. My answer, in part, will be that I read books.
That answer will seem puny, I expect. Perhaps future interrogators will question my commitment to repairing the world, given that I spent so much time reading. I will not try to defend myself. I will simply answer truthfully. I read books out of love.
A growing admiration for “pleasure activism” is part of my justification. This movement is rooted in a refusal to judge sexual or gender expression and counsels that, by getting in touch with what feels good, we are best able to do good. Pleasure activism is different from the hedonistic impulses of the 1970s, in which following one’s own bliss led to … more bliss. Instead, the charge is to find what we authentically love so we can more effectively work for fairness and sustainability.
Like many on the Outer Cape, I am a lifelong reader. I was five when I first read a book by myself, Mike Thaler’s Magic Boy. Thaler’s words and illustrations tell the story of a child whose powers allow him to be simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary. He can juggle rainbows, “which sometimes he dropped/ or elephants/ which he never dropped.” But when his mother “told him to go to bed/ he turned off the moon and/ went to sleep.” From the moment I closed the cover of Magic Boy, I embarked on a lifelong adventure of book reading fueled by curiosity and wonder.
A decade earning a graduate degree in American studies nearly killed my love of reading.
I rarely felt joy or magic as I waded through leaden prose and labyrinths of footnotes. But there were moments when my delight in books returned, especially with the birth of my children. I can make myself smile now, more than a quarter century later, just summoning the image of my kids toddling alongside me into the central hall of our public library. I can feel their excitement as we sorted a wobbly tower of picture books into three piles (yes, no, and maybe) to decide which ones we’d lug home.
My overdeveloped sense of duty impelled me to finish graduate school, and the advanced degree I earned allowed me to teach history in a variety of settings. I have loved teaching, especially when it has allowed me to present complicated ideas simply.
Health and logistics prevented me from returning to the classroom at this time last year. How lucky I have been to get to read in a new way by reviewing for the Independent. I’ve had free rein, poring over publishers’ catalogs, anticipating what will most intrigue the paper’s readers. How good it feels once again to make (virtual) piles (yes, no, and maybe).
Getting to read books and write about them has allowed me to continue in the world in a way that feels joyful and in keeping with my absolute self, even when, like so many this year, I haven’t done many other things that I have always loved. By selecting, reading, and reviewing books, I’ve been able to take action on issues that move me. Without that, I would have felt even smaller and even more irrelevant.
I have read novels and memoirs, histories and guides, books about rocks and genetics, the Supreme Court and crime. I have tried to read us all to new appreciations of the world’s brokenness and of its beauty.
Each time I open the covers of a new book, I am prepared to be astonished. Book by book, I am ready to believe it is possible, through language, to juggle rainbows and elephants, and to turn off the moon.