What I learned from my pandemic bookshelf

Literature as a tincture of wisdom and measure of hope in the time of COVID

By Steve Wasserman

Special to The Examiner

Nearly two years ago, the specter of an uncontrollable virus loomed. Soon a crisis of health became a test for politicians, scientists and ordinary citizens all over the world. Democracies and dictatorships alike fumbled. The long contest between science and ignorance grew sharper. Demagogues battened on public fear. And many of us, feeling helpless, looked to historians and novelists, poets and artists for solace and a sense of proportion.

Literature, we hoped, would provide a tincture of wisdom and perhaps a measure of hope in a darkening time.

And so we ransacked our shelves for books once read but mostly ill-remembered — Camus’s “The Plague,” Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” We learned to speak with some fluency of contagion and pestilence and bacilli and plague.

We learned terrible statistics: half of 14th-century Europe felled by the Black Death, 50 million struck down in the rampaging influenza of 1918 (infecting 20% of the world’s population), following on the heels of the engulfing catastrophe of the First World War, which itself laid waste to millions.

We were gripped by riveting accounts of death rendered with an exemplary forensic skill by writers whose books reminded us that we are the lucky survivors of a biological conflagration, so devastating that it is all but forgotten except by specialists and obsessives.

Like many readers, I couldn’t get enough of these grim and instructive tales. I’d been meaning to read for decades a classic of 19th-century Italian literature, Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” which is required reading in every high school in Italy. Two of his chapters are devoted to the plague of 1630 and note that half the citizens of Milan (a city of 130,000) died.

My favorite was Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year.” Written decades after the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666, Defoe managed the neat trick of recounting the sufferings of the populace as if he’d actually been an eyewitness. The book presents itself as journalism, but is a combination of fact and fiction. It is, as Anthony Burgess wrote, a work that reveals “the truth of the conscientious and scrupulous historian, but its deeper truth belongs to the creative imagination.”

Many of us comforted ourselves as COVID and its variants waxed and waned that surely our modern methods would eliminate these new threats and that life would resume more or less normally as before. Who among us could really foresee, apart from the doomsayers possessed of perfervid imaginations — the Bay Area’s own Jack London in his 1912 “The Scarlet Plague” and George R. Stewart in his 1949 “Earth Abides,” both examples of apocalyptic literature predicting plagues of unprecedented virulence sweeping our species to extinction — that we would find ourselves hostage to behaviors more typical of the Middle Ages than of the Age of Tesla?

If we had harbored the hope that a global threat would unify peoples the world over and banish unruly temptations of nationalistic idiocy, we were sadly mistaken. Old habits did not erode; rather, they strengthened. Sectarianism and suspicion of the other were everywhere to be seen.

Defoe, too, was struck by the refusal of many people in 17th-century London to do the right thing. Doctors especially were pilloried for having the temerity to urge that measures be taken to halt the advance of contagion — measures that necessarily constrained individual liberty. “I wish I could say,” he wrote, “that as the city had a new face, so the manners of the people had a new appearance.” But he saw that “the people, hardened by the danger they had been in, like seamen after a storm is over, were more wicked and more stupid.”

Similarly, one had the growing feeling that among the blowhards of the unvaccinated, there was at bottom an ugly taboo of our political culture that dared not speak its name: a conviction that COVID could be used almost as a biological weapon to decimate political opponents in the largely Democratic precincts whose residents are Black and brown and are disproportionately susceptible to infection.

Racism and opportunism combined, one strongly suspected, to form a toxic admixture fueling incompetence and deliberate neglect. Thus were the ravages of a pandemic weaponized by cynical politicians willing to betray the central obligation of high office to promote the general welfare and health of the citizenry. And if the casualties included some of their most ardent supporters, well, that was simply the price of the Rapture.

Of all the books I read — and continue to read — during this time of de facto house arrest, the one I return to and have found most helpful and bracing in its unsentimental rigor is the late Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” She resists the notion, seductive though it may be, that the state of our health — or indeed of our civilization — ought to be conflated with a social or emotional or psychological condition. Doing so, she argues, risks a category error. Sometimes a thing is just a thing, a rose is just a rose. It stands for nothing other than itself. The mutating virus to which billions are now prey is itself indifferent. The sooner we acknowledge this truth, the sooner we shall be able to parse with maturity the predicament we face.

As for literature, I’m afraid what wisdom is to be found in its pages can never act as a prophylactic against bad behavior, much less as inoculation against evil. At best, in the hands of our most gifted writers, it acts as a mirror showing us all our flaws and virtues, if only we have the courage to look.

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is publisher of Heyday, an independent nonprofit publisher founded in Berkeley since 1974. His library contains 18,000 books.

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