Most of us learned to read a long time ago, but many of us are learning to read all over again through the fog of Covid.
I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one feeling this way, but I suppose everyone, at some point during the pandemic, has found it difficult to focus on reading for pleasure. In my other gig I conduct book groups, where we talk about literary fiction and nonfiction. My “bookies” tell me they have been finding it difficult to concentrate. They tell me they read the same paragraph repeatedly before it sinks in. They say nothing holds their fractured attention.
I have had the same experience over the last two-plus years. Therefore, it was challenging to find eight books for my upcoming winter groups. I want to share the list with anyone who is up for a good read. My message is, forgive yourself if you can’t plow through books the way you once did. When Covid becomes less of a threat, our minds will refocus, our attention span will expand and reading will once again become the joy it has always been. In the meantime, let’s go at our own pace. But let’s go.
We need to talk. And we need to talk about books. After isolation, polarization and not nearly enough conversation, reading important writers feels exactly right. Good books ground us, and give us wings.
Talking about literature, as we wind our way through these interesting times, feels like a privilege, and a joy. The books I have chosen, anchored in other times and places, connect us with complex characters whose lives resonate with our own.
One caveat: My grouping is odd. I rarely select “book group” books. I look for unique pieces, slightly out of the mainstream. For this year, I chose books that offer escape from the here and now because, Lord knows, we need to escape. And I looked for books that also offer comfort. The comfort comes not from reading “happy” books, but from witnessing the affirmation of life in other times and places.
Another pandemic concession is that the books are all relatively short, under 300 pages.
The first is “Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson tells the story of a young girl, abandoned as a child, who finds love and grace in this world in the best way she can. It is the writing, of course, that makes this story so moving.
“The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel, is a world away from “Station Eleven,” Mandel’s award-winning novel about the earth after an apocalyptic event that wipes out most of humanity. Oddly, it wasn’t an entirely depressing book, but I wasn’t going there. “The Glass Hotel” tells the story of someone finding herself living an implausible life in an extraordinary time. The writing is gorgeous.
“The All of It,” by Jeannette Haien, is a gem in every respect, small, dense and stunningly beautiful. The story takes place in Ireland and introduces us to a couple bound by secrets that unravel as we turn the pages.
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” by Olga Tokarczuk, is a unique read. Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature, the book is translated from the Polish, and I didn’t completely understand it all, but I loved the journey.
“The Sea,” by John Banville, according to The New York Times, is a “luminous novel about, love, loss and the unpredictable power of memory.” Like several other selections, it takes place in Great Britain. I am not entirely sure why I traveled across the pond for so many of my book choices, but it feels right; the settings are far enough away to buffer us as we are pummeled by the same life-and-death issues here at home.
“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” by Muriel Spark, is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s. A classic novel, based on Spark’s own experience teaching at a girls’ school, stands the test of time, perhaps because memory, love and betrayal are timeless themes.
“The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett, breaks my own rule: It was a New York Times bestseller and wildly popular. It speaks to the experience of Black women in America.
Finally, “The Fortnight in September,” by R. C. Sherriff, is a richly layered story about a family of good people on a fortnight’s vacation when nothing — and everything — happens. A beautiful read.
I offer these books with respect. Take what you will. Read what holds your head and your heart.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.