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My concentration is pretty much shot. So I have to confess I haven’t gotten very far into A Distant Mirror. I’ve mostly been playing Unciv on my phone and watching Devs and making curry and cleaning out the closet and periodically tweeting at A24 that I would really like to watch First Cow now and feeling slightly removed from my body. But that hasn’t stopped me from ambitiously and somewhat compulsively ordering even more plague books: The Great Mortality (about the black death) and The Great Influenza (about the 1918 flu, of course) from The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois; Asleep (about the mysterious pandemic of “sleeping sickness” that followed on the heels of the 1918 flu) and The Ghost Map (cholera) from The Bookstore at the End of the World; Pox Americana (smallpox) and Epidemics and Society (all of them!) from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. (I also ordered Joan of Arc In Her Own Words from Split Rock Books in Cold Spring, New York, but that’s related to an entirely different phase I’m going through.)
I’m not sure what I feel like all these plague books will achieve. Will I read them all? Probably not. Will they all sit on my desk talismanically protecting me from getting sick? Of course, but that goes without saying. Will they make me feel more or less anxious? TBD, I’ll let you know.
Ordering the books was a circuitous choice for me because I’ve been having some trouble coming to grips with the fact that the American lockdown fell so short of what it should be; that we began talking about reopening before we ever, it seems to me, fully closed. All these bookstores I ordered from are places I used to work or are owned by friends of mine, and I know they’re doing their best to keep themselves and all their employees safe and paid (though The Bookstore at the End of the World is a Bookshop site begun by a group of bookstore employees who were covid-furloughed by their employers). What that means, practically, is that because none of these stores have employees on site, all of these orders were fulfilled “direct,” which, in the rarefied parlance of bookselling which I know from my years in the business, means they were shipped directly to me from one of the wholesaler’s warehouses (the bookstores get a cut of the sale, although a smaller cut than normal). The wholesaler in this case — in all cases, as far as I know, including orders placed through Bookshop — is Ingram, the behemoth book distributor rivaled in reach only by Amazon and owned by the billionaire Ingram family. Early on in the pandemic, as lockdown began rolling across the country, I thought for certain that the warehouses themselves would soon close — not just Ingram and the smaller regional wholesalers, but the publishers’ warehouses as well, not to mention the printers! I thought the whole industry would have to, at least momentarily, pause. But while many publishers have pushed back the release dates for their spring titles and laid off employees (so that’s not going well) and one major printer has closed (while another has filed for bankruptcy, so that’s not going well), the major publisher warehouses themselves, as far as I can tell, have stayed open — with social distancing measures in place, of course. (The situation at the Big Five publishers feels a little opaque to me, but smaller publishers/distributors such as Small Press Distribution, a longtime distributor of micro presses, have been clear about their need to raise money.) Ingram, meanwhile, has been considered essential throughout the country during the pandemic and its warehouses have remained open and shipping direct to customers (as well as, of course, to stores in states where things like curbside pickup and receiving/shipping in and out of the store are still allowed — Point Reyes Books in California made an excellent video of what that looks like).
And so, what I’m trying to get at is that in the beginning of the pandemic I thought the best way to support bookstores was to order gift cards and donate to fundraisers (special shout out to Unnameable Books in Brooklyn and The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago) or maybe order audiobooks or ebooks if that is your thing (though independent bookstores earn somewhat slim percentages of those sales, when they are able to offer them at all), convinced as I was that any sort of physical shopping would be tantamount to forcing warehouse and postal workers to endanger themselves, and that those warehouses would soon close down anyway! But I suppose that lately, despite few if any tangible signs that the spread of the virus has begun to decline in America, I let the growing narrative that “corona is nearly over now” and “the country is reopening soon” seep into my brain. And so, to be frank, I ordered some extremely nonessential stuff.
I guess I stopped expecting that the book warehouses would shut down. I stopped expecting the peak and have settled for the plateau.
But I’m sitting here staring at this copy of Epidemics and Society, which has already arrived and which I have set in a “decontamination pile” because we’re running low on disinfectants in my apartment, and I’m wondering, if I’m afraid to touch it, should I really have had someone send it? It’s a ghoulish feeling.
When the pandemic was starting, my feed was full of people tweeting about buying Nintendo Switches, so I mean, I’m aware that I’m not the only person in the world to buy something nonessential during the pandemic. I guess it’s possible I’m just being overwrought, here.
But it still seems like something is fishy about all this. I still feel like a ghoul. I feel like we have settled for a rolling epidemic until (purely theoretically!) herd immunity is reached, but we are doing it without admitting that that’s what we are doing— or acknowledging who will suffer for it (prisoners, warehouse workers, grocers, nurses!). And business owners are being forced into this mass casualty scheme because federal and local governments refuse to provide financial relief.
So, yeah, I have no idea where I’ve landed here. Am I ghoul for buying all these plague books? I mean, ok, yes; we all know the answer is yes.
I’m a ghoul with just enough plague books to tide me over until the second surge.
1. “The Pre-pandemic Universe Was the Fiction” by Charles Yu, The Atlantic
Sci-fi writer Charles Yu weighs in on reality. “Years ago, I started writing a short story, the premise of which was this: All the clocks in the world stop working, at once. Not time itself, just the convention of time. Life freezes in place. The protagonist, who works in a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, takes the elevator down to the lobby and walks out onto the street to find the world on pause, its social rhythms and commercial activity suspended. In the air is a growing feeling of incipient chaos. I got about midway through page 3 and stopped. I didn’t know what it meant.”
2. “What Rousseau Knew about Solitude” by Gavin McCrea, The Paris Review
Novelist Gavin McCrea writes about Rousseau’s lonely years, noting that the thinker’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker are haunted by the society they seek to avoid. “Looking at himself through the eyes of society, he is ‘a monster,’ ‘a poisoner,’ ‘an assassin,’ ‘a horror of the human race,’ ‘a laughingstock.’ He imagines passersby spitting on him. He pictures his contemporaries burying him alive. Rumors about him are, he believes, circulating in the highest echelons: ‘I heard even the King himself and the Queen were talking about it as if there was no doubt about it.’” This version of Rousseau sounds, to me, pleasantly like a morose Twitter poster. It just feels very familiar. I feel like I could scroll through Twitter right now and see some defeated soul posting that if they ever walk in public again, they will be spit on and the Queen will hear about it.
3. “Creation in Confinement: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” by Nicole R. Fleetwood, The New York Review of Books
An excerpt adapted from Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, in which she surveys art created by incarcerated people or made in response to incarceration. Fleetwood describes the unique challenges of documenting prison art: “…many of the artists, whether currently or formerly incarcerated, do not have possession of their art, nor any documentation of their work, nor knowledge of how and where their art has circulated… art made in prison may be sent to relatives, traded with fellow prisoners, sold or ‘gifted’ to prison staff, donated to nonprofit organizations, and sometimes made for private clients. There are people I interviewed who described their work and practices to me but had nothing to show.”
4. “The Exclusivity Economy” by Kanishk Tharoor, The New Republic
Author Kanishk Tharoor reviews Nelson D. Schwartz’s The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business, an exploration of the byzantine hierarchies that have emerged in all manner of consumer-facing industries to separate the wealthiest customers from the chaff. “What these changes augur, in [Schwartz’s] view, is the crystallization of a caste system in the United States and the birth of a new aristocracy.”
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5. “Gay Literature Is Out of the Closet. So Why Is Deception a Big Theme?” by Jake Nevins, The New Yorker
Jake Nevins surveys recent queer fiction and finds that deception is a major theme, even when it’s not explicitly the deception of the closet. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Dorian Gray to Tom Ripley, the lie of the closet was the hinge upon which queer literature would pivot, reflecting what were then the often judicial or mortal costs of being openly gay. Insincerity, ‘merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities,’ as Dorian Gray put it, was the mode of congress gay men had been taught to adopt for the sake of self-preservation…”
6. “The Surreal Stories of ‘Lake Like a Mirror’ Show How Power Distorts Reality” by YZ Chin, Electric Literature
YZ Chin interviews Chinese Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong about her short story collection Lake Like a Mirror, recently translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Ho says her stories try to reflect the way the exercise of power distorts reality. “I think a surrealist style can twist the surface of a reality that presents as neutral. Then we can see reality as a screen that has been yanked askew, and its seemingly solid surface starts to be pulled apart. Through this we realize that reality can be distorted by power. This isn’t something realism can achieve.”
7. “What if, Instead of the Internet, We Had Xenobots?” by Garth Risk Halberg, The New York Times
In his review of the long-awaited second novel from Adam Levin (author of the 1,000-page widely lauded high school bildungsroman The Instructions), Garth Risk Halberg writes that “Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new.” His latest book, Bubblegum, is about “a novelist-cum-memoirist-cum-unemployed schlub named Belt Magnet, of the fictional Chicago suburb of Wheelatine, Ill.” who can “hear the suicidal pleas of certain inanimate objects through a telepathic ‘gate’ above his right eye” and was one of the first patients therapeutically paired with a “botimal” aka “a mass-produced… velvety soft, forearm-length, ‘…flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend®!’”
8. “No Sleep till Auschwitz” by Jeremy M. Davies, The Baffler
New fiction from Jeremy M. Davies, author of The Knack of Doing, presents a fictionalized publishing industry that is — purely fictionally speaking, of course! — terrible. “Drucksteller saluted the long con of literature by way of the time-honored method of stealing a ream of copy paper and not flushing the toilet on his way off the estate.”