I’ve been reading too much; I haven’t been reading enough. We’ve been in a pandemic for a year now and I have whiplash from having to pivot so hard so often. At first it feels like all I read is the news and policy directives. My attention span is gone too, reading is harder than it was. When I cast my mind back to write this, all sense of chronology is gone—time is a circle, and the circle is a zero.
First, I read Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, and wonder if there is any hope for us at all. The book is bleak, and in the early days of a global health crisis this is something I’d call ‘four stars startlingly relevant’ in the sense that we so often seem unwilling to learn the lessons history tries to teach us. Chernobyl Prayer is a masterpiece. I read the first couple of chapters and put it down for six months, unprepared for how affected I was. I can see why she won the Nobel in 2015. I wonder if I’ve ever read any other Nobel winners and remember how much I enjoyed Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead when we chose it for book club a couple of years ago.
I read prescriptions for anti-depressants, sleeping pills, read about side effects of both online. Lexapro makes my ears ring, melatonin makes me thrash in my sleep.
Last month I read the final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and I realised that, no, there is no hope. I’ve given up.
Buying books and reading books have different objectives and while I seem incapable of committing to one I launch headfirst into the other. When my flight home to New Zealand is cancelled I make up for it by calling my favourite bookstore in Auckland and ordering seven books by authors whose talks at the Readers and Writers Festival just got yanked, four of which are still on my TBR pile. (Two of the ones I do read, however, The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, make my list of favourite reads in 2020.) The TBR pile has now grown to 78 novels, four essay collections, six biographies, two poetry collections, one memoir, 10 general non-fiction, two novellas, one book of short stories, and an anthology. Instead of those, I read cancellation notices for theatre; live music; festivals; flights home to see my parents, brother, grandma. I familiarise myself with the relevant sections of the Fair Work Act when my partner is temporarily furloughed from their job.
For a while I revert to a teenage state and read several books by Tamora Pierce and Christopher Pike. They’re each about 200 pages long, which is perfect because I can’t sit still for more than a few hours at a time. Their gentle predictability is comforting. I think back to a time before COVID, when I could still go dancing and had four books on the go at once (Down the Hume; Hera Lindsay Bird; Wild, Fearless Chests; and The Lost Arabs).
I read this tweet that says if you used to read obsessively when you were young and now you doomscroll obsessively, you’ve just found a more efficient way of disassociating. I lie in bed for an hour, read and re-read the tattoo on my right forearm—the title of a Joan Baez song etched into my skin—over and over. Is that efficient? I don’t know if I’m doing it on purpose or not, not now I mean, not at this stage of having hindsight.
At some point I dip into audiobooks, then quickly realise the medium is not for me. I make it through The Song of Achilles (begrudgingly), and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (while chewing my fingernails down to stubs), but I have to abandon the format altogether when the narrator of Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark inexplicably adopts regional accents. The book is set in Poland in the 80s. Why is the mean lady a Cockney? Why is the nice lady from the West Country? I don’t understand, well, I do understand, and I cancel my subscription. I’ll pick up a real copy some time.
Every year in book club we pick an impenetrable work of fiction and attempt to penetrate it. In 2019 it was Anna Karenina, a horrible reading experience but an excellent book. Last December it was Infinite Jest. I am sorry to report I really liked it, I can see why people go on about it, and I can’t wait to use it to chat up fuckbois at whisky tastings in future. Afterwards, I worry briefly that it has ruined all subsequent books for me and find it’s impossible to get enthusiastic about anything until Claire Thomas’ The Performance snaps me out of it, even if only for the time it takes me to devour it in one sitting.
Often, I think about the fact that I’ll be dead before I’ve read all the books I want to read.
In October and November I read almost nothing. Instead, I play over 200 hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on PlayStation. It’s still a story, right? It’s a narrative, it’s experiential, it’s research, I tell myself.
We haven’t decided what it will be this year. Suggestions include Finnegans Wake; The Brothers Karamazov; and Ducks, Newburyport.
I read Where the Fruit Falls by Karen Wyld, with whom I shared a shortlist in 2017. This is a book I’ve been anticipating for three years, and it does not disappoint.
Every day I read a 5–35 page bulletin of what COVID is doing, where it is, who it’s affecting, and how we’re trying to keep it out. I read hundreds and hundreds of emails. I read 36 pages of bylaws before I can rent a new apartment. I read invoices for car repairs, a new computer, online therapy, dental work, and I have a creeping feeling that being an adult means just paying for things you don’t want to pay for until you die.
Slowly, I make my way through Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. Like Una LaMarche, Joey Comeau, Jenny Lawson and Luke Tyler, she’s someone from back in the internet 1.5 days, someone I think of regularly. I hope she’s okay. Allie’s book reminds me of a time in my life when 90% of what I read came to me via RSS, and now RSS is barely a thing. The internet seemed so big once, and I feel like it gets smaller and smaller all the time.
A friend of mine who is currently completing a lap of Australia in a campervan wrote me a list of classic sci-fi to get through while they’re away. I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, the first book on the list, and then I lost the list. The book is phenomenal. I’d never read Le Guin before, but now I see why she is so revered. Not only is the story sublime, but her ability to craft a sentence is astounding. There are some sentences I read repeatedly, trying to understand what they’re made of. I do the same thing with Song of the Crocodile, which is truly beautiful.
Another friend recommends Lonely Asian Woman by Sharon Lam. It’s very good, and it reminds me of Kokomo by Victoria Hannan. Different book but the same kind of vibe, the same sensibilities, I think. Millennial Interior is a thing, and I am here for it. When I finish, I post my copy to Victoria, I think she’ll like it.
Last year my friend Tara wrote This is Not a Pipe, which is about a girl who has a pipe stuck through her wrists. After being largely stuck inside with my partner for the better part of a year, this examination of the ways we depend on each other in relationships is especially apt. It’s a metaphor that’s not a metaphor—I love this. I read it twice.
I read the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Longlist for 2021, and then I tell myself all the things you tell yourself when you didn’t even really hope you’d be on one of those lists in the first place anyway.
I read my own novel, out loud, into the voice recorder on my phone, burn the recordings to CD and post them to my grandma, who can no longer see well enough to read. Reading State Highway One back again is as excruciating as writing it. A little worse maybe, because it feels so immutable now. Grandma is 95 and a New Zealand–Australia travel bubble was just announced, so soon I’ll be able to go and read some for real, I hope.
Sam Coley is a Kiwi writer living in Sydney. His debut novel, State Highway One, won the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and was published by Hachette in 2020.
*Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Original photo by Chalmers Butterfield. File altered here for use.