Stick these books on your reading list!
With nothing but time on my hands, I’ve been determined to spend it fruitfully and finally read the pile of books on my fireplace mantel. I’ve noticed that many of my friends are also reading quite a bit more than usual. Suddenly, our conversations are sparkling with literary metaphors and deep thoughts. During normal, everyday life, it’s a challenge to set aside reading time, but I hope our experience over the past month has rekindled our collective desire to keep reading. My own reading has been varied, but funny enough, one of the books I recently read, Laurus, revolves around the theme of plague. It got me thinking about other classic books that are set in times of plague or a similarly odd circumstance like quarantine.
The list became quite long, so I chose just a few of my favorites.
Laurus– by Eugene Vodalazkin
I finished reading Laurus last week. It’s a powerful read. Eugen Vodalazkin – and his English translator Lisa Hayden – write with remarkable insight and clarity. The story is of Laurus, a medieval village doctor in Russia who is helpless to save his own beloved as she dies in childbirth. He vows to keep her memory alive by devoting his life to penance on her behalf. As a healer who is eventually revered as a holy miracle worker, he devotes his life to caring for victims of plague. His selfless actions teach us the value of self-sacrifice and human solidarity in the midst of torturous circumstances.
The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
The Magic Mountain is a place where those who are chronically ill go to recuperate. At a sanitarium, they have no daily obligations, so they spend the days resting and thinking. Mann writes, “The days began to fly now, and yet each one of them was stretched by renewed expectations and swollen with silent, private experiences. Yes, time is a puzzling thing …” It seems to me that, in the past month, we’ve all been living in our own version of the Magic Mountain. Staying at home and having fewer ongoing responsibilities has revealed the value of each precious day we’ve been given. It simply won’t do to waste them.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
The Road is the story of a father and son trying to survive after an apocalyptic event has ruined the environment and life is hanging on by a thread. Like most of McCarthy’s work, the story is violent and dark, but in the end it isn’t without beauty. He writes, “Once there were brook trouts in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” For those in The Road, it’s already too late, but for us the mystery still envelops. No illness, no matter how devastating, can rob us of this mystery if we care for each other and keep our hope.
The Plague – Albert Camus
Set in north Africa, Camus’ story of a deadly plague functions as a meditation on how we react when life changes in an instant. For him, the plague is a metaphor. He writes, “Each of us has the plague within him, no one, no one on earth is free from it. We must keep endless watch on ourselves …” If he were alive to today, Camus might caution us about how each of us is responding to the threat of physical illness, isolation, and the loss of jobs. Are we being generous and kind? Are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of others? Or are we getting caught up in the “plague” of fear and self-centeredness? “It’s up to us,” he warns, “not to not to join forces with the pestilences.”
The Last Man– Mary Shelley
In 1826, Mary Shelley had already endured the death of three of her children and her husband, the famous poet Percy Shelley. As a form of therapy, she wrote The Last Man, a novel about a disease that slowly kills everyone until one last man walks the earth. As he sees his loved ones disappear to pandemic, the last man returns home, “as the storm-driven bird does …” He begins to contemplate what makes live worth living. He comes to the conclusion that to live a full and happy life, we must throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our existence. We must love and accept the sorrow that comes with it. Accept both life and death. Accept each day as it comes and find whatever brightness lingers within it.
The Children of Men – P.D. James
The Children of Men takes place in the aftermath of an unexplained disaster from which humanity has become infertile. There are no more children being born and civilization has disintegrated into violent despair. Whatever illness has struck the world has caused a great amount of apathy as people realize they have no future. A small band of folks, however, believe that the pandemic shouldn’t have the last word and that there is indeed hope. Life is worth fighting for, and even in dark times we never know what blessings are in the process of being born.
A Journal of the Plague Year – Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe, author of the literary classic Moll Flanders, had a secret. In the year 1722, a book was published that claimed to be a firsthand account of the plague in London in 1665. The author was an anonymous citizen who said he had lived through it. In fact, the author was Defoe and the book, A Journal of the Plague Year, was fiction. Defoe made the whole thing up. He wrote about funerals, the ways in which people escaped quarantine, and mass panic in such a realistic way that the book fooled everyone until long after his death. It’s interesting to note that so-called fake news has always been around and we shouldn’t believe everything we read.