Thursday, May 14, 2020


I began reading Boccaccio's Decameron in January.  I must have picked up a whisper of news about some kind of new flu arising in China at about the same time that I was thinking about Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition, in which he recommends Boccaccio's collection of one hundred stories told by a group of seven people, five women and two men, who have left Florence during a plague that killed up to 3/5 of its population.  Decameron also recommended itself to me because I was experiencing "decision fatigue" about what to read.  Yes, "decision fatigue" is a thing; psychologists write about it and teachers and professors experience it in spades.  I do remember sitting down with a pile of exam booklets, endlessly optimistic and eager to get to my Christmas shopping or my summer writing and thinking "I don't have to comment.  I don't have to fix any comma splices.  This shouldn't take me that long," only to have my brain turn to mush three or four hours into the undertaking.  I couldn't tell a good response from an awful one.  That's decision fatigue, and during the winter, when I'm doing a lot of reading, sitting down with one very large book looks like a welcome break from having to decide on the next book.  Once the pandemic became international news, I found I had rather a few "plague" books on my shelf.  I muddled on with Decameron until I felt like an incompetent reader,  unable to thread all these stories of lusty priests and bad aristocrats together, though I did come to the conclusion that being in the midst of a pandemic prompts you to distrust authorities who otherwise ruled your lives and your ethics. I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and started Saramago's Blindness, when I was defeated by bleakness.

As a response to my decision fatigue, Katherine Arbuthnott loaned me Jo Walton's trilogy, Thessaly, which I pounced into. It resonated for quite a number of reasons.  It took me back to the days when I was reading Ovid's Metamorphosis and other versions of Greek myths, which Veronica says I would tell her while I washed her long hair.  It took me back to the days of being an eager undergraduate who not only majored in English but took two of the University of Michigan's Great Books courses--a model created at the University of Chicago for juxtaposing any of the world's many towering texts to one another.  I do remember reading Plato's Republic in the same class, taught by a small, dapper biology professor, alongside Darwin's Origin of the Species.  So I thought how much more I would enjoy Walton's novels if I re-read The Republic, and managed to find a small hard-covered Classics Club edition on my bottom bookshelf.  

The pandemic hasn't just exploded my reading time, even after the midwinter tendency to huddle in the dark inside someone else's world has passed.  It's also changed my workout routines.  Trigger warning.  When  you are seventy, you become unfit very quickly, and as it began to appear that I would not be working out at the University of Regina gym anytime soon, I bought an exercise bike.  It's inelegantly occupying our living room, facing out into the back yard where I can study spring's small victories.  I could wheel it around to face the TV, but why?  I seriously don't want more news.  So instead I have been listening to the On Being podcasts, wherein Krista Tippett, who must do nothing but read, interviews writers, thinkers, artists, historians, poets as various as Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, Stephen Batchelor, Ross Gay.  It's like a crash course in the humanities at this historical moment.  One of the things that I noticed is that many of these podcasts offer us little nibbles of utopias--possible utopias, inner utopias.  Rebecca Solnit talked about how progress is often made possible by disaster.  Stephen Batchelor (whose The Art of Solitude is on my iPad) writes about how time with ourselves, time being curious about ourselves, our desires, habits, quirks, strengths, undoings, allow us to forge what he calls an "inner autonomy" and "ethical intelligence."  Ross Gay talks about how gratitude and delight are central to justice.  He argues that too often we are angry about injustice--as we should be--but that this fury blinds us to the need to do justice to the things we love and to beauty.  He might say, pulling an example from the present moment, that demonstrating (two metres apart) on behalf of a living wage for front line workers is of course important, but that it's also important to thank them and to ask about how they are doing--and to listen to the response.

I'll admit that I have an affection, a deep affection, for people and representations of people who struggle to do their best with their own quirks and weaknesses.  This was one of the reasons I loved Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.  This was one of the reasons that Warlight appealed to me in the early days of the pandemic's uncertainty.  Two children are handed an intolerable situation by their mother's decision to continue working as a spy after the end of World War II, but the unlikely people around them manage to jerry-rig surprising comfort and safety for them.  I'll be even more shameless in my admissions.  As I come to the end of my third edit of Soul Weather--the novel I've been working on at least since 2011--I realize that my favourite characters do this as well.  In the manner of earnest undergraduates everywhere, they face the crappy worlds they're handed by "adults" and manage to concoct, out of bailing wire, books, conversations, youthful energy and optimism, moments both of critique and of hope.  

So I've decided on a summer reading and listening project which I'll happily share with you.  I'm going to be reading utopias.  I'll begin with The Republic and move on to Thomas More's Utopia, but after that I may be a bit less systematic.  I'll happily re-read Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, his fictionalized version of the Brook Farm experiment in creating a utopian farm.  But I thought I might read it alongside Walden and see if Thoreau's memoir is also influenced by utopian goals.  I'll re-read Harrison's book on gardens:  he'll have some suggestions.  I'll finish Jo Walton's trilogy and tell you how it strikes me.  Any recommendations?


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