Adjusting to our new normal, one book at a time.
In 2016, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the rate of one chapter a day. Some of those chapters I read aloud at bedtime to our son, Dash, who was 4 at the time — a clever plan, I thought, to lull him to sleep.
Often, it worked, the sound of my voice helping him drift off more quickly. But Dash was surprisingly attentive, too. Here’s a Facebook post from mid-June of that year:
Reading by request "a chapter" to Dash — a chapter of War and Peace, one of the Napoleon chapters. He interrupts to ask, "Where's the woman that everyone wanted to marry?" I tell him, "Natasha's not in this chapter." He thinks about that, then says, "I wish she was." I think many of us might agree.
Hold this story, just for a moment.
Two weeks ago today, I celebrated a birthday like no other in my 52 years. George Mason University, where I teach, had extended spring break and made plans for moving classes online temporarily — quickly extended to the full semester.
My wife was already teleworking, and will for an indefinite future. Our son’s elementary school had canceled classes for four weeks — and he won’t return to the building now for the rest of the year. We were — by default as much as by design — sheltered in place.
A day or so after that birthday, one of my best friends from college, Mary Ruffin Hanbury, sent me a card. The front of it said, “May Your Year Be Even More Fabulous Than It Looks On The Internet.”
The joke there predates our current crisis by many years, but the message has seemed to take on a fresh resonance each time I catch sight of the card on my desk.
Truth is, I’ve Facebooked and Tweeted a lot recently, nearly all of it upbeat: news and small celebrations about my just-released collection of short stories (thanks to the Independent for interviewing me about it); our son’s ever-more-ambitious LEGO projects and his burgeoning skills as a piano player; a comfort-food dinner and a fancy cocktail (not a Quarantini, but you might as well have called it that).
All looks good, yep?
But here’s what you don’t see.
The times that our son turns a suspicious eye across one of those dinners, trying to figure out why we’re holding back tears.
The fact that he’s excelling with LEGOs and piano because he’s been tasked with keeping himself occupied while we struggle to do our day jobs.
The mix of self-consciousness and guilt I feel promoting my book while the world crumbles a bit more at every turn, or the exhaustion lurking behind each post after hours awake in the middle of the night fretting in all directions.
Our family is lucky — I cannot stress that enough. We are healthy (so far, at least). Our jobs give us the flexibility to work at home when others simply can’t. We have those jobs in the first place, and the resources to pay next month’s bills. White-collar quarantine: Guilty as charged.
But even if our troubles aren’t yet more acute, the emotions are likely the same as everyone else’s: anxiety, fear, dread, grief. Even in relative isolation, we know we’re not alone — some reminder there, too, to anyone feeling the same way: You’re not alone, either.
Stay safe, hold steady — that’s become my regular sign-off line on emails. Staying safe requires some specific steps (“wash hands” is high on the list), but how do you “hold steady”?
Real life might never look as good as any Facebook spin, but there’s been much to appreciate lately, much to keep us steady.
Even as bookstore events and book festivals have been canceled, I’ve been heartened to hear that independent bookstores are enjoying robust online orders and that small presses (including my own publisher) are offering discounts to find new readers.
In addition to taking advantage of these opportunities ourselves, it feels good to give, too. We sent a $50 gift card from One More Page Books to our son’s second-grade teacher — a thank-you for her work keeping Dash and his classmates connected online in fun ways.
I appreciate the initiatives that many people have taken to move in-person programming online. The Gaitherburg Book Festival announced over the weekend that they were cancelling their May 16th event, but that they’re considering virtual panels, and the Independent’s own E.A. Aymar is planning an online Noir at the Bar on Friday evening, April 10th (I’m proud to be one of the readers).
Beyond books, my good friend Alexia Gordon offered a great post at the blog Chicks on the Case about cultural experiences suddenly sprouting up on the internet: museum tours, concerts, more. If you’re doing some online book-buying, please do check out her Gethsemane Brown mystery series — with the latest book, Execution in E, released in late March — and tune into her podcast, “The Cozy Corner,” celebrating traditional mysteries.
Reading proves beneficial, too, of course. Those middles of the night when I’m awake, I’m always turning to one book or another, though that often seems more reactive than proactive, escapist at best.
Full circle, then, to that first Facebook post I mentioned: I want to talk about being proactive and about reading aloud — which I’ve written about before here and which does seem a real solace.
These days, in a flip, our son reads to us. For each chapter of Magic Tree House he reads aloud, I read a bit from Nancy Drew — two books in tandem.
We read on a sleeping bag in our bedroom — Dash camping out there most nights these days, not out of fear, but instead as part of some new normal, pillows on each side of him, a nest of sorts. His schedule has been thrown off, so getting him to bed is suddenly tougher, and one night recently he asked me to read something to help, like that big book I used to have.
I pulled Anna Karenina from the shelf — more Tolstoy, probably my favorite novel. Returning to its world is like revisiting an old friend, a friend that you learn something new and exciting about each time you meet. The book’s scope and its humanity help provide some sense of perspective. There’s personal nostalgia now, too, echoing with reading War and Peace aloud four years ago.
Dash is, once more, enjoying both the sedative qualities and the story itself.
The night after I wrote the first draft of this article, Dash stopped me mid-sentence while I was reading to him and asked, “Are they going to get together?”
“Who?” I asked. “Levin and Kitty?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Eventually,” I said. “It’s a big book. It’ll take a while for things to work out okay.”
He thought about that.
“Does it have any pictures?”
(That’s an anecdote that seems Facebook-ready, punchline and all.)
Art Taylor is the author of the story collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, in addition to other awards for his short fiction. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.