I might as well be honest. A great year of reading it was not.
I had a baby in May this year, in the first flush of the pandemic, so I feel zero sense of shame about what I did or did not read. I figure whatever I get around to is a bit like yoga: doing anything is a win, even if I just lie there breathing and trying to follow what’s going on.
First, I can definitely tell you what I have not been reading. I did not read Defoe’s The Plague, Camus’ La Peste, or any other title from a pandemic-lit listicle.
I let go of my subscription to the New York Review of Books, so no more essays on Goethe or World War Two for me, just hours of scrolling the internet like everyone else.
I read WhatsApp conversations in the middle of the night with friends in other parts of the world, getting too wired to sleep when I finally got the chance.
I downloaded a sample of Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a dashed-off set of essays from the first weeks of the pandemic, then left it sitting unopened on my Kindle and my phone.
I read a rom-com by an author named Sophia Money-Coutts, about a woman who works in a bookshop and initially fails to recognise her true love because he has (wait for it) tattoos.
Other ‘reading’, loosely defined: I scrolled through the Goop YouTube channel for guided meditations and personal growth content. I watched an interview with a Jungian type who advised asking your ‘shadow’, or inner self, what he or she is feeling and why. The Jungian told Gwyneth Paltrow she is an egotist. ‘I don’t mean to offend you,’ he added.
I read Apartment Therapy pieces that came up in my feed and that I clicked on reliably every time, a perfect fool for the algorithm.
I read an email newsletter, READ. LOOK. THINK., that linked to a comparison of methods for washing and drying salad.
I read a book on baby sleep that I failed to implement.
I read one of those articles that drew on Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, a pyramidal representation of our wants and desires drawn up in the 1940s, to explain why it is that we are finding it hard to read or write novels or get much done.
I bought the FT Weekend with aspirations of reading it. The baby (I will refer to her here as Taurus Baby) threw the pink segments around with joyous abandon. My partner leafed through the How to Spend It lift out, looking at the pictures and loudly voicing his opinions. I continued to spend the cover price each Saturday, telling myself it’s good to have rituals in the week, something to give the long stretches of baby-fuddled time the semblance of structure.
I ask friends, by text: ‘Honestly, have you read anything in 2020?’
A friend in London says, ‘I’ve actually done more reading this year on account of the curtailment of all other recreational activity. I also watched about 300 episodes of Masterchef Australia so no smugness about pastimes here. I have also undoubtedly done more internet scrolling this year than in all previous years combined.’
From a friend in Canberra: ‘I feel like I have read nothing. I am embarrassed.’ Then: ‘The Michelle Obama book. I read that.’
‘I watched the documentary on Netflix,’ I reply.
I tell her I am writing an article about my reading.
‘Look forward to reading your lies,’ she messages back.
Hahaha, I think. Touché.
But I actually have been reading, in fits and starts. I read (on my phone, in the small hours) drafts of a friend’s essays in progress. This was in the first weeks after the birth, when Taurus Baby was, in the way of small babies, taking a while to feed.
The friend who wrote the essays, Yasmine Shamma, lectures in poetry at the University of Reading. The first piece contrasted the shared experience of waiting out the pandemic with the waiting of refugees (it’s now up on Empty Mirror journal and free to read).
The next essay, written in the aftermath of the Beirut blast, conjured memories of playing tennis in that city and elsewhere, and the vexed geographies of Lebanese families. Reading these meditations, which were so intimate and at the same time erudite, I was reminded that, yes, I still had brain cells and, yes, I could still read, wanted to read.
After that, I read books of short stories that came in the post. I published my own book of stories this May, launching it in the same month as the baby, so to speak (in the run-up to both events, I took to talking about the ‘book baby’ and the ‘baby baby’). One of the very nice things about having a book out is that you get to go on panels (or the digital equivalent) and talk with other writers, and publishers send you their books beforehand.
For a podcast interview, I re-read Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories. I find Chekhov a really companionable writer. The title story, a love story, surprises me every time I read it, a trick that Chekhov achieves by having the characters surprise themselves, especially the womanising Gurov. It has so much human feeling in it; it moves from cynicism to its opposite. Chekhov is such a great observer of these sorts of multitudes, and it’s not a bad time to read something that moves from cynicism to something else.
Throughout all this, Taurus Baby suffered from colic. She writhed in her sleep; she woke and cried. I consulted widely, as you do.
Come nighttime, I slept in bursts of two hours, three hours. I dozed to Desert Island Discs, sliding back through the archives in reverse chronological order, preferring auditory distraction to spiralling witching-hour thoughts.
In a year of escalating unreality, I entered an intensely dissociative state. I felt giddy and worn, sometimes both at once. Enjoy the time, strangers said, seeing me out with the pram by day. Yes, I thought, agreeing. But also: what does that even mean?
I knew that other people elsewhere were keeping up their reading. Delight in the natural world emerged as a theme during the Anthropause. One writer I know told me she was reading Walden’s Thoreau. ‘Have you read it? It’s a bit like someone’s nephew got the keys to the holiday cottage and decided to write about it, but then the descriptions of nature are just amazing.’
On the phone, I spoke to Claire, my literary agent. Some time ago, she promised herself she wouldn’t take on any more collections of short stories, regarding them as commercially hopeless. She took me on anyway when I sent her my manuscript last year.
Mid-Covid, holed up in West Sussex, she spoke about seeing red kites soaring overhead. For reading, she volunteered the novel Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. ‘She’s sort of a more mature Sally Rooney. I laughed out loud the whole way through and then started weeping two thirds in.’ She was also taking a deep dive into the novels of Jenny Offill, culminating in Weather, out this year.
I’m likewise a fan of immersion reading, going hard on a single author and tearing through the oeuvre. On a recent weekend, I dipped into Rachel Cusk’s ‘Faye’ trilogy of novels, in which an author much like Cusk navigates post-marriage life. These have been described as a project in ‘negative fiction’, with the narrator appearing largely through other people’s stories (‘negative’ here refers to negative space, in the sense in which sculptors use the phrase).
I could add that I’m late to these books—the third and last, Kudos, came out in 2018—but it can be good to come at a book once the hype has receded, to read it on its own terms without surrounding noise. (For Cusk, responses range from ‘work of genius’ to ‘clever but nasty’.)
In this time of non-travel, I followed Faye to Athens, where she drifts around (Outline). Then came her attempt to renovate a London flat (Transit). With their sharply-observed vignettes and coolly distanced tone, the books remind me of Speedboat, Renata Adler’s cult seventies novel, but in Cusk there is a stronger sense of the contours of her project. For all the apparent reticence of the narrator, Cusk’s books are companionable in their own way, drawing you into a kind of conspiracy of listening.
Reading them made me think of something the critic James Wood said in How Fiction Works, that every work of fiction educates the reader in its own conventions. Isn’t that exactly right?
It occurred to me you could really say the same of babies. And around this time, at six months in, I cracked the case of Taurus Baby’s mystery malaise. Turns out all it took were Lacteeze drops, a simple over-the-counter enzyme that helps to break down lactose.
Babies. Who knew? Still, a fix is a fix. I’ll take it. Here’s to feeling on the up, and to an embarrassment of reading in 2021.
Jo Lennan is the author of In The Time of Foxes, a collection of short stories (Scribner 2020). She has written for The Economist, 1843, The Monthly, and literary journals.