Reading Pandemica

(Be patient, I do get around to recommending stuff to read somewhere in here eventually …)

Candice Carty-Williams is spot on, at least for me, when she warns re self-isolation:

1) Don’t go out and buy a thousand books. Much like holiday reading, you almost certainly won’t get through them all. Your to-be-read pile will be too overwhelming and reading might feel like a chore. 

Guardian 21/03/2020

I’m not enjoying reading so much at the moment. I don’t have a TBR pile. I have a TBR book case. And it is a dishonest book case. Spread throughout my other bookcases are hidden tomes that remain unread. Part of it is the product of purchasing books every week for over 40 years – there were always some I did not get around to. Some are also the product of on line purchasing giving me wriggle room to escape physical boundaries. Walking into, and out of, Abbeys, and Galaxy, and Angus & Robertson (showing my age, but if I really wanted to do that, I would have said The Pocket and Technical Bookstore, eventually purchased and then closed by the next to be mentioned) and Dymocks (and Adyar, and Max Ell’s, and the now closed Borders, and the spread wide Kinokuniya, and Graemes or was it Grahames, and … ), I’d have heft, and have to heft that heft home, and I would have handed over notes and coins, and I would immediately see the pile grow. Whereas, with free post from The Book Depository, I don’t use real money, I use electrons, and I lose track of the pile until it arrives, and so the comments about the books piling up from, I don’t know, say someone I am married to, is a bit delayed (“Another parcel arrived today. Looks like books” “Really? How odd.”)

So yes, reading does begin to feel like a chore, now that I have put them all together, and have started to work my way through them, because I look at all the books I still have to read, and then without meaning to try to read a bit faster and a bit more to ACHIEVE THAT GOAL, and that is not what it is meant to be about, and then I think about all the books that I won’t get to read because one day I WILL BE DEAD, and then I have an urge to go and buy some books, because hitting confirm will make me feel better. So, at least for Lent, I have given up purchasing books. I miss it. I miss walking around book shops, because it is what I have spent a chunk of my life doing, but hey, we are all self-isolating now, so that is a first world problem and not something to complain about. But I could easily be loading up online, and I’m not. So sorry Scott Jones, I want to read your new novel Stonefish, but I am not allowed to buy it yet. (But I did read and enjoy your short story collection, SHOUT, KILL, REVEL, REPEAT, so there is that. And if anybody read this blog and it would make a difference, I would review it. I still might.)

Anyway, this is a little too self-revealing, and I should move onto Ms Carty-Williams’ next point, which is

2) Keep your reading relatively light. I probably wouldn’t read anything apocalypse-themed for now. We’re all anxious enough without having to think about how we’ll recreate Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.

My mate Stephen has often suggested to me that as a person with a tendency towards feeling maybe a tiny bit depressed sometimes (yes, that covers it up well, don’t want to be too revealing), I should read less apocalyptic stuff. Fair point. But then, I can remember living in a foreign land, dealing with a very difficult work situation, being extremely stressed, sleeping badly, and slipping downstairs so as not to wake anyone, and turning on The Walking Dead. It was the episode which commences with Carol looking out the window at her (to be revealed as psychopathic) child charge, who is laughing and playing tag with a zombie. My stress slipped away. I know it gets a bad wrap, but I think it has been brilliant at times, and TWD got me through a very bad patch. But keep in mind, I find Cormac McCarthy’s The Road calming, so I may not be the best guide. Such great lines:

This was the first human being other than the boy that he’d spoken to in more than a year. My brother at last. The reptilian calculations in those cold and shifting eyes. The gray and rotting teeth. Claggy with human flesh. Who has made of the world a lie every word.

The Road

So I am not the person to agree with Ms Carty-Williams on that point, but it may be true for other readers. I don’t know about recreating Station Eleven. It got all the raves, and I read it and quite enjoyed a lot of it, but I was a bit amused to read a review that described it as a good book for melancholic people who feel they are a bit cultured. I gave my copy away thinking I would never re-read it. I later bought another copy, and started to re-read it, but gave up. AND THAT IS HOW YOU END UP WITH BIG PILES OF BOOKS, YOU IDIOT.

The Betoota Advocate, which is having a very good time lately with Covid-19, takes a different approach to Ms Carty-Williams, and recommends a book to read rather than a book not to read. It recommends reading The Stand as part of your self-isolation: “What more could you ask to take your mind off the shortage of toilet paper and the slight cough you have that is making you wonder if any of this is even real? “

Yeah, I don’t know. I read the original version at least twice, and the re-released unexpurgated now with extra fibre version released ten years later at least twice (including once last year)* (nowhere near as many times as I have read “‘Salem’s Lot”), so I’m obviously not down on it, but maybe wait until there is a pandemic involving a disease with at least a 90% mortality rate.

The pandemic book that I am going to recommend to you (and how long has it taken me to get to it?) is The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. (I am not going to link the title to The Book Depository or Amazon because it is still Lent and that would lead me into temptation. Surely you can do that yourself! I hope that I am not leading you into temptation because then I will have to cut off my typing hands and tie them to a millstone etc.) It is a lovely story about the end of the world, quickly read, which I enjoyed so much that I decided it must be a bit fluffy, so I gave it away, then I bought it again, then gave that away as a gift, then bought it again. And now I will dig it out and read it again this week. The main character riffs, not unexpectedly in a melancholy fashion, about pain and loss at the end of everything. There is a disease (possibly more than one) which kills most people, but other things are hinted at as well, with certain trees and fish disappearing, so it is not a HA! HUMANS ARE THE VIRUS AND EVERYTHING WILL BE BETTER WHEN THEY ARE GONE book, but we are probably to blame for everything that happens. Endurance and perseverance are qualities / traits that I have always admired greatly, and that is what those who are left do, they struggle and endure. Loners who have always been that way, who continue on their hard stoic paths; loners who have been made that way by the apocalypse, who carry on despite their pain, perhaps as a witness to what has been lost; a religious community that carries on living despite the ongoing legacy of the blood disease; oh and a dog. There are several love stories for the main character, Hig, two of them romantic, and I think that is why I initially did not trust my reaction to the novel – I suspected my warm reaction to those, perhaps. there is love, and there is hope, but none of these are uncomplicated, guaranteed or without suffering. Oh, and there is terror and killing and suspense and bad guys, and I had no doubts about my uncomplicated reactions to those things. None of the good guys are good, and the morality of the story is not clear cut, but that is part of what thinking is about. This novel has stuck with me for a long time.

I recently tried to remember the first apocalypse I read. I think it was John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’, my introduction to the cozy catastrophe. How lucky was I that this was an assigned novel at school. I was hooked. I think the year before we had ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’. Thank you, school. I think I have re-read Triffids at least every 5 years or so. It is dated and I don’t know that modern women would need saving as often as those in Triffids, but it caught me young. I am not about to underrate blindness as a disability, but I don’t know if Triffids counts as an epidemic / pandemic book, given the source of the blindness. A true epidemic / pandemic book though is ‘I am Legend’ set in the far distant January 1976, and concludes three years later. I read it (more than once) sometime inbetween. I don’t have time to kill, unfortunately, I am like many of us working from home. My major reading time is my commute to and from work. I don’t miss the travelling, but I need to set aside a new time for myself where I don’t have to feel guilty reading. On the train, there was nothing else to do. Working from home, there is no clear delineation between work time, me time and home/family time. That is something I need to work on. But if you have extra time to read, and you too find the end of everything a tiny bit calming, I can recommend all of these to you.

(And to self promote: I don’t have any stories about pandemics / epidemics, but I have two stories about illness: KAIJU! and Miracle Cure. Feel free to click on these, so that I won’t get the doleful message, “no clicks recorded”.)


  • No doubt that makes me guilty of being a smug bastard, according to Betoota: “Additionally, The Stand is soon to be adapted into a TV series so if you read it now you’ll feel extra smug about having survived the real-life pandemic while preparing to watch a show based on a Stephen King book.” Given the number of those I have read / watched, I am not sure it is something feel smug about.

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