How books comforted me during lockdown

Through life, my late first husband’s death and my own coronavirus, I have found answers and solace in yellowed pages, classics and sagas, writes Diane Cole

Thursday 15 October 2020 17:47
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man and woman reading books sitting on many books
man and woman reading books sitting on many books
I

n 1970, during my fresher year of college, the man I would later marry gave me an ultimatum. “We need to make sure we can read in the same room together,” Peter told me. As studious types who carried our literary ambitions in the book-filled backpacks on our shoulders, our self-imposed test would be a silent night at the library lounge, no concentration interruptus allowed.

We passed, thus paving the way for us to spend the next 29 years reading together in one room after another, in one city after another, and finally one hospital room after another, until he no longer had need for any room in this world. He died just three weeks shy of the year 2000, several months short of the milestone age of 50.

Two decades and counting later, I am now remarried, and our son is grown up. It is probably no coincidence that my current husband, Phil, a librarian and chemistry professor, also enjoys reading in the room together with me; it is an additional gift that, himself a widower who often read in the same room as his late wife, he is not jealous of Peter’s ghost. And so, I like to joke, I often can be found reading with both husbands: with Phil, in person, and with Peter, courtesy of the many books he left behind, his presence channelled through his scribbled notes and marginalia.

Then, in March, when the pandemic shut down New York, where I have lived and read for the past 40-something years, Phil and I looked up from our books and out of our windows to find our vibrant city transformed into what looked like an abandoned stage set of itself. In the months since, we've cheered the stirrings of life that have resurfaced and keep growing. And through it all, our shared reading habit has kept us going, perhaps never more so than when I started experiencing Covid-like symptoms in the second half of March. The fever, cough, congestion and gastrointestinal distress were all worrying enough to warrant calling the doctor, but because they were not debilitating enough to send me to the hospital, I was left to wait out the symptoms at home.

I reflexively looked to our bookshelf for words, ideas, stories, sensibilities that could help guide me through the unknown territory ahead. Many of the titles are classics, and in that sense they are ageless, but their actual age, as measured by their publication dates – some merely 20 years old, others dating back an additional 20 years or more – shows in their yellowed pages, broken spines and sometimes musty aromas. But in my imagination, Peter has not aged. I see him lounging with a book in one hand, a pen (usually red, like the colour of its ink) in the other, marking up one page before he turns to the next.

On the shelf, I spied a beloved copy of The Arabian Nights, which my son and I had read aloud each night as we waited through Peter’s final time in hospital, and then after his death. The saga’s promise of yet one more night with yet one more story had allowed us to hope for Peter’s recovery, and when we could no longer hope, to console us as one day of grief passed into the next.

But the coronavirus was no fairy tale, and I wondered what Peter – and Phil – could offer for comfort as neither my symptoms nor the pandemic showed signs of abating. It was probably the bright red of its spine that drew my eyes to our paperback copy of The Stories of John Cheever. Its covers front and back fell off as I dislodged it, and individual pages became separated from the spine with each one I turned, my eyes moistening from the dust let loose. How could I possibly read – or in this case, reread – a book as badly damaged as the city of New York seemed?

His point, Phil explained, was not that we might have to wait 30 years but that uncertainty was the natural state of the world

I quickly found my answer. On the first page of Cheever's preface, Peter had underlined the following passage with his trademark red pen: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”

The words belonged to Cheever, but in highlighting them, Peter had provided the frame through which to read these stories: as a time-bound vision of a New York now gone, a place that might seem as familiar yet strange to New Yorkers today as the changed form the city had now taken on. This city was no different from the rest of our transformed world. It would continue shape-shifting for as long as the pandemic lasted.

But how long would that be? I asked Phil, an avid reader of scientific literature, for his best guess. Surprisingly, he opened the Book of Psalms and read out loud: “He counts the number of the stars, to all of them gives names.” And then he told me this story. In 1987, scientists observed the explosion in outer space of one of the closest supernovas ever recorded, emitting billions of years of starlight all at once. The spectacular blast had destroyed that star, but where was the new neutron star that the scientists had expected to emerge afterward? It took more than 30 years before scientists finally spotted it, hidden in the dust and debris the supernova had left behind. His point, Phil explained, was not that we might have to wait 30 years but that uncertainty was the natural state of the world. Whether it comes to hunting down an unseen star or emerging from a pandemic, our best weapon is the same: patience.

And endurance, I added. And so I turned the pages of both the books before me, as well as the newspapers that had piled up during the two weeks of my recovery from my presumed case of Covid, and read on – and on, agreeing and disagreeing, whether with Peter’s scrawled commentary or with Phil’s comments out loud, in our continuing story of reading in the same room together, and whatever further transformations our city and our world undergo.

Diane Cole is the book columnist for the Psychotherapy Networker and the author of the memoir ‘After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges’

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