What To Read During A Pandemic

Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.

This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.

Essay: “When the World Went Away, We Made a New One” by Leslie Jamison
(And her NY Review of Books piece on the early days of quarantine while suffering through the virus, single parenting her toddler, is also deeply resonant)

Poetry: The Blue House by Tomas Transtomer

Testimony: 1964 Testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention.

Longform News: The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free, by Nathan J. Robinson

Pain Reactions

My entire team at work is reading/read Homo Deus, which is about post-humanism, the central topic of our video show. Despite its weight, the book is a pretty smooth read. The most interesting thing I learned from it is about the narratives we create around pain: Nobel-prize winning research found that in our memories we average the peak pain point and final pain point of experiences. So when given a choice between a shorter experience of moderate pain and a longer painful experience with a higher peak pain point, we choose the longer experience, so long as the ending was not-that-painful.

So if you’re getting a colonoscopy and your peak pain was an 8 and your final experience was a 2, you’d choose a long colonoscopy over a short procedure with a sustained pain level of 6. Ditto childbirth, etc. Harari:

“Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the ‘peak-end rule’ – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average.”

A scene from Closer, starring Natalie Portman.

This reminded me of an interview that director Mike Nichols gave about his film Closer, which follows a quartet of miserable relationships, or they end up feeling that way, anyway. He talked about how he wanted to bring the play to film because it features only scenes of the beginnings and the ends of relationships — that’s all the audience gets to experience — you don’t get all the quiet mundanity in between. Nichols said something about how that’s exactly how we remember our romances, too. The peak pain and the bliss at the beginning; but not much in between.

Science seems to bear out the play/film’s idea … about the end points, anyway.

Like everyone else, I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius and recommended Fleabag to every reader of my newsletter when season one came around a few years ago. I did not expect a second season (season one was so self-contained) so when it dropped a few weeks ago and was PERFECT, it was like finding a twenty in a purse you hadn’t used in months and then having a friend come by to offer you an ice cream sandwich.

Kristin Scott-Thomas guest stars in an episode and gives an epic speech about a woman’s pain:

“Women are born with pain built in,” she says. “It’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives, men don’t.

“They have to seek it out, they invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby.

“We have it all going on in here inside, we have pain on a cycle for years and years and years…”

Audiences loved it.

I recently started reading the work of Leslie Jamison, a writer who is my age but writes like she’s been alive for 200 years and has all the wisdom and experience to show for it. Her collection of essays, The Empathy Examsends with the essay “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which catalogues her own pain, examines the pain women carry, and the literary trope of the wounded woman. “I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. If you don’t read the book, here’s the piece. 

It raised a lot of questions for me but a key one is this: When a woman’s pain and suffering is so often expected and cliched, how do we best carry our actual wounds? She riffs on the notion of the “post-wounded woman,” a generation of us who grew up doing everything we could to avoid the identity of a wallowing victim/woman. I recognize this in myself:

“Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, apathetic, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect. I should rather call it a seam. We have sewn ourselves up.”

Then, she asks, What if some of us want to take our scars seriously?

And answers:

We don’t want to be wounds, but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one.

The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields.