Literature During the Pandemic

Ryan Fredrick, Reporter

Reading literature can give people a place to turn to while sheltering at home — and not just because it is comforting. It is because it can help people grapple with enormous changes many are experiencing right now. 

There has been much discussion of how much we need books right now, to comfort, distract, or console us from the pandemic and its toxic effects. We need literature, because books do comfort, distract and console us. That is true. They offer the chance to take imaginary voyages, the chance to empathize with others across time who remind us that we are not alone.

But the most critical function of literature at this moment? To help us make sense of the tear in the texture of time. All of us are experiencing ruptures. All of us have lost the world as we knew it.

If we are lucky, we are waiting in an odd suspended present, sheltering in place, trying to get by. If we are not so lucky, we may have lost people we love or lost employment. Most of us have lost the ability to get even simple groceries. Some may realize that the home where they live is not the home where they need to live. It feels very clear that for some of us, the world feels unilaterally broken. We can’t really know for whom this will later seem like a breaking point, and for whom this will only be a strange juncture in time.

It is a time of many tiny revelations: Each day is a rift, a strange reinvention. Good books help us find language for living inside the tear. When we get through this, for many it will probably be a mix of both — each of us will carry with us some complicated, intimate, possibly transformative story.

How does literature help us find ourselves in this language? It is in all the small details.  

None of us can know now how we will feel later, what the later will be. This epidemic has enormous ramifications for our economy, and for all public and political lives. It is forcing us each to reread the most intimate corners of private life as well, corners many of us only come to name in poems or stories.

It is here, in these intimate stories, that people can relate. We can relate, more than ever, to the one line in our favorite poem, the one paragraph in our favorite story, that has always been impactful, but now seems as if it matters more than ever. 

What will all this come to mean to us later? We cannot yet be ready to fathom. When we are, it will be the novelists and the poets who, at long intervals, help us to figure it out.