Why we turn to reading in the midst of the pandemic

I was turned away (more like being yelled at) by the RELA guy at the hypermarket for having a slight temperature (in all honesty I was surviving on 2-hour sleeps these days), and upset with being reprimanded publicly and being unable to buy some groceries for me and my mother, I went home and locked myself up in the room and tore through the last 100 pages of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name of which I was reading at the time.

I think about a lot of times when I turn myself to books and reading whenever things do not make sense to me. You can say it’s escapism, but I would say it’s otherwise. Whenever things make me upset, you would bet I would stay up the entire night reading and researching for answers, unaware of the hours that had gone by. Whenever things upset me and I don’t have the mental capacity to deal, I turn to books and reassure myself my future me will take care of things in the next few hours or the next day. More so than often, she would. I don’t need to understand you, just need to read now. Put together the anxiety of how the Great Virus has changed our lives tremendously now, I found myself being cooped up and reading more than ever.

I came across this article which argues the essentiality of books in the time of the pandemic. The definition of what is essential, according to the article, varies from countries, regions and culture. In general, we would consider food, water, and medicine as obvious essentials right now. But in Belgium, they consider their frites — an equivalent to American french fries — as absolute essentials, so the kiosks selling frites remain open during the lockdown in the country. In California and the Netherlands, marijuana is deemed essential. France, wine. And in some countries such as Germany, France, and Belgium, independent bookstores remain open as literature is deemed as essentials. But some Italians were against the idea of books as essentials, citing that it is ‘cute’ that people think so, but it reveals the classist nature of some people who could afford to feel so, rather than deeming food and water as absolute essentials. As someone who finds comfort in the company of physical books and who does not come from — I think I am not — an elite community, it’s a tough debate. The article sums it well for me, “For many, books are essential. They provide food for thought. At a time when our thoughts are running wild, escaping into other experiences, or trying to understand what’s happening through the lens of historical accounts, is a kind of a lifesaver.” Disregarding the importance of literature can also be harmful, because books and text and literature serve as some form of documentation, just like how “The Great Depression brought “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Spanish Inquisition helped inspire “Don Quixote.” Cholera gave Camus “The Plague”. Shakespeare, Twitter has been quick to remind us, wrote under quarantine.”

One of the street libraries set up in the protest site of Gezi Park, Istanbul.

One of the street libraries set up in the protest site of Gezi Park, Istanbul. (Picture credit)

In a sense this reminded me why libraries were often set up in the midst of the chaotic people deem as protest sites, such as those at the Zuccotti Park, Plaza del Sol, Hong Kong, Gezi Park, Kiev, India, and many others. Books and literature, and in extension, ideas and libraries, contains knowledge — especially radical ones — of which the state often tries to suppress in times of protests. Libraries, like protests and protest sites, embody the spirit of togetherness, self-expression, communities, a sense of belonging, and a search for an agency. Furthermore, the idea of sharing and exchanging books within the protest site free of charge — a scene no longer mediated by money — served like a fuck you to the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’, the Marxist term which describes of how market exchanges often drown the meaningful social exchanges that take place in the process of labour.

The pandemic, which many believed serve as a reset against our capitalistic tendencies, saw many of us who could afford to stay home, retreating to our rooms and reading pages after pages under the cover. We are not just simply reading. We are researching so the future us could do something about this fuckup we could not quite understand yet at this point, and more so than often, the future us often find the ways.

Reading in my tabs:


  • Reading: Finished Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, so I am resuming Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and started Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, another apt read in the time of the great pandemic.
  • Viewing: Started watching Gentefied on Netflix.
  • Listening: I don’t understand a word of Arabic, but I am mesmerised by this Arabic hiphop tracks by Blvxb.
  • Food & Drink: Earl grey latte, and chicken in soy sauce with rice.

Comment 1

  1. Pingback: The Forster room – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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