This was the worst year, and nothing made sense any longer, except when it was the best year, because time for reading seemed to expand like one of those endless summer afternoons when one was in the late stages of grade school. I despised 2020 while also, as a person of solitary disposition, found myself helplessly nodding in agreement with Emma Brockes, who wrote in The Guardian about this plague year: “Let’s face it: some aspect of it has also been the enactment and indulgence of our wildest dreams.” I sense I am like that character in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Mr. Facing Both-Ways.
In the first days of the pandemic I was, like many others, too stunned to read at all. The habit returned, but slowly and gingerly. I recall that when Donald Trump was elected, people like me raced to reengage with fiction that might place him in context, novels like Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” (Roth’s novel became an HBO miniseries this year, and I just had to look, having read the book.) (It was OK.) This year critics returned to novels like Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Albert Camus’ “The Plague” and Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” These were of real but limited consolation. That others have been through what one is going through is, in times of bitter wind, a real blanket but a thin one. This time we don’t know the ending.
Some books appeared this year that felt right on the nose, like Lawrence Wright’s alarming plague novel “The End of October.” But there’s a sense that we are going to be reading about 2020, the way we are still reading about 1968, for the rest of our lives. Historians will devote books to individual months.
Reading was a refuge in 2020, and I am lucky to have been paid to do it. When I was off the clock, I read a lot of things, but very often I simply wanted, in such trying times, the funny. I read Flann O’Brien’s newspaper columns, collected in “The Best of Myles.” (He got so tired of the critic’s phrase “I couldn’t put it down” that he longed to make a book that would dissolve and stick to their hands.) I reread “The Diaries of Auberon Waugh,” which is one of the funniest books ever published. “One of the best ways of annoying a prawn is simply to put it in the middle of a room and laugh at it,” he wrote. I realized this year how much I missed the dry, probing and ultimately witty writing of Michael Kinsley. It was around the time his byline stopped appearing in magazines that, it seems to me, America started really going to hell. I would have loved to have read this preternaturally smart human on masks, on madmen, on mail-in ballots, on manners and what are left of them.
Some mornings I had trouble getting out of bed, my depression in sync with that of so many others. So I kept Tom Hodgkinson’s elite slacker manifesto “How to Be Idle” close at hand. About hangovers, about illnesses and ultimately about hard and strange times in general he wrote, “Suffering is part of life; it is how one deals with suffering that counts.”
When it all got to be entirely too much for me in 2020, I liked to imagine I was, like Leslie Caron in that great scene from “An American in Paris,” dancing with a book in my hand.
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