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reading in a hellscape

Well, this year didn’t go the way we thought it was going to at the start, did it? And I can’t even really remember this year accurately it turns out. I thought I hardly read anything, but I read slightly more than I did last year—65 books over last year’s 58, although last year’s numbers were down over 2018’s, and those were lower than 2017’s. I did read a lot of fluff, which is true to my recollection, but there were also more serious books in there that I had already relegated to a more distant past.

the full list of books I read in 2020

I’ve written before about the value of reading whatever it is that strikes your fancy in the moment that you need to read:

I don’t need to have everything I read be important or moving or revealing. Sometimes I just read to pass the time. I’m a big believer in reading whatever and however you want. There is joy and value in reading, regardless of what you’re reading. It shouldn’t be a vitamin that you take out of obligation to be healthier or more morally upstanding. It should be everything from the desserts you reward yourself with to savory treats to substantive fiber and calories that give you the energy and health to get through the day. What book is your perfect cocktail that you sink into? Which book is the steak that you ingest slowly and deliberately? Where’s the book that is the cotton candy that evaporates the moment you touch it leaving you sweet and sticky and mystified that it disappeared so soon?

from last year’s reading review, “reading for endings”: https://sarahwerner.net/blog/2019/12/reading-for-endings/

But it was extra hard this year to figure out what it was that I wanted to read in the moment of reading. I, probably like many of you, had no room to wrestle with the serious in my reading life when my waking life was so consumed with death and racial injustice and missing my friends and loneliness and the horrors of my government. But equally so, how could I read fluff when my daily life was so not about fluff? That didn’t feel right, either. I need to process and I needed rich language and I needed to wrestle with life.

I’ve also written before about how reading is tied up in my sense of who I am and reading fiction is part of how I make sense of the world. When my father died and I lost my ability to read, it threw me into a tailspin—that story is the tale of “being a reader, again and still” as well as the rediscovery of myself as a reader—and I have been patient with myself since then but also always wary that I will once more lose that ability to sink into a book when I need it. I think having been through the ups and downs of reading and trauma before made it a bit easier to process what this year has done and is doing to who I am as a reader.

Looking back on what I read this year a handful of things jump out at me. One is that this is the year I discovered Elly Griffith’s series about Ruth Galloway, a prickly forensic archaeologist at a uni in East Anglia who of course ends up being repeatedly pulled into helping investigate local murders when the police force needs her assistance in determining the dates of the dead bodies they find. I love Ruth. These books became comfort reading for me in part because of Ruth and in part because I learn a lot about the past of that corner of Britain in reading them.

Some of the other books that stuck with me offered comfort in a different sort of way. I don’t think comfort is the first adjective, or maybe even any adjective, that most readers would use to describe the first two books in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy. But there’s something about how the group of adversaries in Gideon the Ninth—especially Gideon and Harrow—come to work together that does offer a kind of comfort at a time when it feels like we are all fighting against each other in a race for resources. The comfort offered by Harrow the Ninth is of an entirely different sort. It’s the comfort of watching someone suffer through mourning and working—very badly—through how to live with loss. That hardly sounds like comfort, but if someone you’ve loved deeply has died, Harrow’s struggles will resonate in ways that might be cathartic.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is also about loss, although it doesn’t feel like that at first. If you haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to say anything more about the plot, because you need to live through its meandering and unraveling. But the ending made me weep in its nuances. Would I have felt the same if I hadn’t read it in the middle of a deeply circumscribed life? I don’t know. Probably, maybe, yes. She is such a gifted world builder and writer that I think she would have brought me there regardless.

The main character of Anna Burns’s Milkman also lives in a deeply circumscribed world, albeit one vastly different from Piranesi’s and my pandemic one. I was never a young woman in the Troubles, but I was a young woman caught in a cesspool of expectations, and Burns captures that element of growing up so well and draws from that all the rest of the ways in which the narrator is trapped mercilessly by things she wants to escape but cannot that I found it claustrophobic to read. That isn’t to dissuade you from reading it. Rather, it’s a recommendation. Read it slowly, take breaks if you need to. But I found it exactly as amazing as all of the awards for it said it was.

I’d put off reading Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to Station Eleven, which continues to be one of my favorite novels. And I was worried both that I couldn’t stomach something about pandemics and the end of the world and that it wouldn’t be about that world. But it is marvelous, a novel that is adjacent to the world of Station Eleven, a rewriting of that novel that expands it and dwells on the multiplicities of stories and layering of narratives. It felt like a novel about possibilities, even when the choices that were taken were sometimes ones that led to sadness.

All year I’ve been thinking about Sandra Newman’s The Heavens, which was one of my favorites when it came out. (My quick thoughts on it are in last year’s post.) I haven’t finished it yet and I’m dreading it a bit, now that I know how it ends. I don’t think I’m going to find anything comforting in this reread, but I wasn’t expecting to. I didn’t find it a comforting book the first time. It felt deeply sad to me, full of a desire to save the world but enmeshed in a vision that we make worse everything we touch. Poor Kate, to be unable to save the world, to be the only person who remembers how good things used to be, to be the only one who grasps the possibility of a better life. But maybe at least she got to see that vision?

The one bright thing for me this year has been the young people I know who do see that possibility for a better world and who have been building mutual support communities to get there. Can they wrest the world to a better place? Maybe. There have been dramatic changes this year. They’ve not all been bad. I don’t think reading makes us better people, and I don’t think reading will save us. But I do think that reading can help us imagine other futures and other pasts and maybe that will help us move out of this hellscape into something better.

2 replies on “reading in a hellscape”

Hello! Just wanted to say that I’m definitely guilty of trying to read for “productivity” all the time. I’m trying to rediscover my love of calm, engaging reading through Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour 🙂

This world wants us to value productivity above almost everything else—it’s hard to avoid! Rediscovering calm, engaged reading sounds lovely.

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