Rescue reading for troubled times

Suggested reading for when you can’t concentrate on anything.

Who can read a book right now? It’s so hard to concentrate on anything or get anything done. It’s hard to scan beyond restrictions and stats of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, a daily loop with minor variations.

And reading, which used to be a joy, seems like hard work for a concentration span which has been whittled by anxiety and circumstance. Also, hard work for tired eyes that stare at screens too many hours a day.

But there is still comfort, solace and reassurance to be found in the written word. There’s a quietness there for your mind to melt into that you won’t get from streaming a series or trawling a feed. There’s food for your soul.

So here are my reading rescue suggestions. Firstly, I’m suggesting paper as something tactile and familiar and to delineate it from the screens of our working days. Secondly, I’m suggesting short forms. The idea is to replenish those ravaged inner reserves any way we can.

Short stories

The right short story can take you away and deliver you back, (perhaps even slightly changed) in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Feel the satisfaction of starting and finishing something. Feel the relief of genuine distraction and the space to make your own connection with what’s on the page. I’ll be posting a series of suggested anthologies to read over the next weeks.

Poetry

Something else which can be enjoyed in short bursts and picked up and put down again for intervals. Don’t make it hard for yourself. Pick up what you have on the shelf, what you know from studying at school, or something that’s been recommended.

An old favourite

Take a favourite book from your shelf, one that feels like a best friend and is therefore no effort at all, despite the time between sittings. Read it at whatever pace you want because you know what’s coming anyway. Abandon without any hard feelings. Sometimes it’s just nice to re-connect with familiar words.

Old diaries and letters

Pick out an entry/letterl at random. You probably won’t remember anything that’s mentioned. You may be impressed by your turn of phrase or kind of mortified. If you’re like me, you’ll often be left feeling sad about the passing of time and for your former self without knowing exactly why. But look at that, half an hour just passed and you were somewhere else altogether.

Collections

Collections of letters, diaries or essays are all great for their pick-up and put-downability. They also offer diversity in subjects and styles, so you get the feeling of reading widely even though it’s all from the same source.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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Keep your notebook close in a crisis

The simple trinity of a pen, a person and some paper has provided solace for many before us.

We’re in uncharted territory here. Most of us haven’t lived through a pandemic. None of us have lived through one of these proportions. When we write, we can use our words as an antidote to anxiety, as freedom from our confinement and to simply mark that we were here.

Writing during a time of crisis is not a new idea. Keeping a journal as a way to manage anxiety and depression was instinctive for writers like Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka. Both of them used diaries to detail their internal struggles.

There’s a relief in the simplicity of writing a journal. It’s just you and your thoughts without the echo of comments or threads. But it’s also a ritual that can ease your anxiety and give you a chance to reflect. When there are so many things outside our control, routine and habit can help to calm that anxiety.

There is also a sense of ‘better out than in’. The brain dump, brain vomit or ‘morning pages’ from Julia Cameron’s the Artists Way all acknowledge the idea that if you articulate it on a page, it’s less likely to rattle around in your head.

The days can be long and lonely during lockdown. Journaling can give you an outlet for your feelings, providing an internal audience when no one else is there. It also offers a sense of escape from isolation. 

Scottish poet, William Soutar wrote his book, Diary of a Dying Man, when he was quarantined with pneumonia. He spoke of his diary as a true companion and friend. American writer Flannery O’Connor also wrote a lot of her close observations about life as an escape from her sickbed.

Thomas Mallon in A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries, said that some people have kept a journal “not so much to record lives as to create them, their diaries being the only world in which they could fully live.” This is true for Xavier de Maistre. In 1794, he wrote A Journey Round my Room. It was written while he was under house arrest after deciding to explore his room and record it as a travel journal.

People journal against anxiety and isolation but you can also write to simply record. You can write for posterity like Samuel Pepys, the grandfather of modern diary entries. He just wrote it how it was.

Pepys covered the quotidian highs and lows of 17th Century England. He also covered the Great Plague of London. As a wealthy man, his experiences weren’t at the frontline but his observations of daily life give us insight into that time. He tells us that he chews tobacco to protect against infection and about his suspicions that the hair from corpses is being used by wig-makers. 

Restrictions feel normal now but they aren’t and this time is going to be interesting to future generations. Curators are already collecting proof of life as we’re living it now. In recovery people often write to addictions or perpetrators. In a pandemic, write to whoever or whatever you need to. Write to your unborn children and grandchildren. They’re going to want to hear about it. Or write to your future self, because we’ll all be different by the end of this.

This is a unique moment in time and our individual experiences of it will create the history of the future. Your notes from the pandemic could enter the Corona-lit canon that is no doubt going to emerge when the masks come off. They’re certainly going to help you survive the anxiety and isolation of life lived within four walls.