The last book launch I went to before the pandemic was for Ellena Savage’s excellent Blueberries. This is also the last book I can clearly remember reading.
Earlier today, I opened the notebook where I recorded the titles I read in 2020. After Blueberries was Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy; Jenny Offill’s Weather; and Tara June Winch’s The Yield. After that, Svetlana Alexievich’s brilliant Voices from Chernobyl. Then nothing.
I remember reading Voices from Chernobyl slowly. At the time, I thought it was because it was such a harrowing book that I was inadvertently pacing myself. Now I suspect that it was the beginning of the unspooling of my ability to read; or at least, to read in the manner relevant to the present essay.
At the beginning of the second wave, when the housing commission flats in North Melbourne and Kensington were placed under lockdown without warning, I read, heartsick, stories from residents suddenly detained without adequate food, baby formula, nappies, Ventolin inhalers, paracetamol, methadone, etc., etc. I join the hordes of people collecting donated grocery items, and, with my Mazda hatchback packed to bursting, I drive the short distance to the drop-off point in North Melbourne organised by a community services group.
It’s a Monday night, black and freezing. Hard rain falls across the windscreen as I turn into Boundary Road. One of the locked-down flats is across the road from the youth centre drop-off point. Waiting in the queue of vehicles, I turn off the ignition and watch a group of coppers eating dinner from fast-food bags. I watch a teevee news crew packing up. I watch a person clad head-to-toe in a white hazmat get-up emerge from the flats and I think of Chernobyl.
The volunteers waiting at the gate wear masks. The hoods of their coats are drawn around their faces. They blink into the rain and headlights. They are telling cars, one by one, that they’re running out of room, that the response has been overwhelming, that donations have been paused for the night. Their voices are unexpectedly jubilant. We are asked to return tomorrow.
Thank you so much, the young woman says, and I’m moved by her cheerfulness, and also by the fact that so many people have turned up, and also by the fact that a hundred metres away a cluster of cops are eating their Filets-O-Fish outside a tall building of people waiting on basic grocery items, basic information.
In July I abandon my 23-square-metre flat and move to my parents’ house for six weeks during Stage 4 lockdown. I hope I will be able to sleep more easily there, and that it will be more sustainable than living alone.
I pack more things than I’d take on a holiday or work trip; less than I’d take to move house. Clothes—mostly yoga pants and big woollen jumpers—and my iMac, my work laptop, a ziplock bag of chargers and cables. Yoga mat, piddly hand weights, my favourite coffee mug.
I pack a dozen books, feeling hopeful; among them, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Lot by Bryan Washington and The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.
But something has happened to my brain. I can’t bring myself to reach for a book. I can no longer concentrate. I’m Mariah-Carey-I-can’t-read-suddenly meme.
Of course, I can read, and I do. Messages from friends. Emails. Pastel-coloured squares on Instagram whose text reads Community care is self-care and Defund the police, their messages flattened to meaningless, vacuous phonemes. Digestible, palatable, repostable, search-engine optimised. I read my students’ writing attentively, marking up encouragement and suggestions in the margins. An endless stream of digits: case numbers, transmission rates, prices on supermarket shelves, my bank balance.
At work I am developing a creative concept for a campaign whose purpose is to sell expensive candles. I read poems about space. Sara Teasdale’s ‘There Will Be Stars’, then ‘There Will Be Rest’. ‘New NASA Missions Rendezvous with Moon’ by Erica Dawson. ‘Heliocentric’ by Keith S. Wilson. ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars’ by Tracy K. Smith. All of this will be flattened into a campaign whose purpose is to sell expensive candles, but for a week or two that’s beside the point. I sit up late emailing and WhatsApping colleagues in another time zone. We exchange scraps of poems, visual references, films, astronomy facts and definitions, abstracts from studies in scientific journals, and I feel almost whole.
I read an in-depth article on the effects of the pandemic on the fashion industry, a topic in which I have no real interest. I read the PDF letter that constitutes written notice that I, along with a dozen or so other colleagues, am being made redundant with ten days’ notice. My job title is misspelled the same way again and again: ‘copywrighter’. My eyes keep running over the line that assures me that these redundancies are being effected for structural reasons, and are in no way reflective of my (our) skill, experience or value.
I think it’s sociopathic to make an entire department redundant in the midst of a global pandemic on any grounds but pressing financial concerns—and yet. I read job ads. I read my own CV. I read a letter that offers me ‘redeployment’ within the company on a contract basis. Yes, I tell everyone. I’m so lucky. So relieved to have a job in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis. I read the relevant sections of employment law concerning unpaid wages, wage theft, etc., etc. I read indignant messages from friends. I read my own Sent Items in a bid to affirm that I was clear and gracious and forthright.
None of it sticks, though. I float through the weeks, then months, completely untethered. I’m often surprised, on waking, to open my laptop and see which YouTube clip I inexplicably fell asleep to (‘This House Has People in It’), or to find I’ve ironed all my bedsheets. Once, I walk out to my car and am struck by how shiny it is. Then I remember, with a dawning horror, that I took it through the car wash only the day before. I stop drinking for a few weeks, believing my nightly alcohol intake to be the culprit of my memory loss. But it turns out that grog is not to blame.
Therapy goes virtual. No longer my pilgrimages to the small calm room in the middle of the city, the artefacts and books I stare at when I’m thinking about what to say or whether I agree. Now I sit cross-legged on the carpet of my flat—it’s spring and I have moved back to my flat—mobile phone propped on a stack of unread books on a step-stool. My therapist sits in front of a large bookcase in what is presumably her house. I recognise, even pixellated on the little screen, the spines of several novels behind her head. Anna Burns’ Milkman is near her left ear, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I’m comforted to know she’s not one of those people who organise their bookshelves by colour.
I tell her I can’t read anymore. I also acknowledge it’s not the biggest problem anyone has right now—not even the biggest problem I have right now—but what I am trying to tell her is that the cognitive effects of depression are really bumming me out, and I know I don’t literally have dementia but sometimes it really feels like it, and how am I ever supposed to work or write again, and I don’t want to live like this.
I say: I can’t concentrate on books, but I keep returning to biology and chemistry textbooks. Stuff I had in high school. I dug them out of my parents’ attic. I’m listening to science podcasts, too, the really dry stuff, on my daily government-sanctioned walks.
Maybe you find something comforting in the known, says my therapist. Then adds, after a moment: But I don’t think we need to pathologise everything. If it brings you comfort, then—
On a blustery day I lock myself out of my apartment complex. I have a spare key to my flat, but not to the front gate. I send a message to our group chat. The man who lets me in is someone I’ve never met. He’s subletting for a few months, he explains. We discover our flats are, in fact, adjacent to each other. You’re the one with all the books, he says. My apartment is in the corner of the complex, with a wall of glass that faces a concrete walkway. In the gap between my timber bedhead and the window, I have stacked columns of books. It’s a pain in the arse when I need to locate something quickly, but a necessary concession to modestly-proportioned living quarters. All of this is to say: my books are mostly invisible from inside the flat, but visible from the landing behind it.
When he mentions the stacks I feel embarrassed, as though I’m one of those performative ‘readers’; someone who buys books but never opens them. I have not read—nor written—a thing in months! I’m a fraud.
Says my therapist, dryly: You know, my sample is skewed—she laughs, and I laugh, too; thickly, because I’m also sobbing—but a lot of my clients are saying the same thing about reading. And you know what else? I’ve only read two books this year, too. One was a novel I’d read before.
I try to convince myself that, like my idle microbiology revision, this fact is a comfort.
My friend C sends me a WhatsApp message. It’s my night in Melbourne, her morning in London.
In bed with Virginie Despentes today
[an image of the first page of King Kong Théorie, which begins:
I am writing as an ugly woman, for the ugly women; the old women; the dykes; the unfucked women; the unfuckable women; the hysterics; the psychos; for all the women disqualified from the global useable babe market.
(my rough translation)]
Oof this looks so good!!! I want to read
I love her!
[an image of another page]
so so good
that 1er para
« de s’excuser, de rassurer les hommes »
Haha I know
All so true
I order King Kong Théorie online, along with a couple of other French books whose names I’ve recorded in my notes app: La Colère by Alexandra Dezzi and Chavirer by Lola Lafon.
Those cognitive things you’re worried about, says my therapist—concentration span, memory, interests, passion, all of it—they’re often the last to return once you start to recover.
Privately I think: I wish they weren’t. I could live with despair if I could concentrate long enough to read a book. I just want a tiny window to a different life, a little reprieve.
My therapist suggests I just keep going through the motions with things I used to enjoy (cooking, running, reading) even if the activities have been divested of joy. Keeping a hand in.
In the dying days of 2020, I commence, in earnest, a private campaign to teach myself how to read once more. I am prepared to use the Pomodoro Technique, to put my phone in a different room, etc., etc. I decide to start with La Colère. There’s no way to explain this without sounding like a wanker—I am sorry—but my logic is that I read more slowly in French, and tend to re-read passages to unpick their structure or rhythm or devices with an attention that I rarely give to books in my native English. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, maybe the curse is lifting, maybe my hypothesis held: in any case, La Colère is the first book I finish in more than six months.
In the second week of 2021, I bike to the Fitzroy baths. A few months ago this seemed so impossible that I could scarcely remember what it had been like to float in the deep end, elbows propped on the edge of the pool to hold my novel at eye level, or to rub sunscreen into a friend’s back.
It’s hot, still early. The pool is quiet. After swimming, I pull out The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, my first attempt of the new year. It was lent to me last autumn, mid-lockdown, by a friend: he stood at my front gate to chat, at a distance, as his toddler examined the pavement for leaves.
At the baths I read almost a quarter of the novel, slowly at first, and then more confidently.
It’s been a few days since then. If I’m honest, reading remains, for now, a fairly joyless chore. But I am persisting because I remember pleasure in reading, and in writing. I didn’t think I would be able to turn in a piece for this series, but I think I will. I haven’t finished the DeWitt yet, but I think I will. It’s summer, and I hope that, like muscle or musical skill, pleasure is something that I can work at growing.
Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator, and the author of Our Magic Hour (2016) and Pulse Points (2017). Her new novel, Bodies of Light, will be published in September 2021.