I am very fortunate to have grown up in a home where reading was regarded as a prized skill. I was also very fortunate, when shelter-in-place orders began, to have been able to return safely to my parents’ home, unfortunately leaving UC Berkeley in the process. Filled with anxiety and fear, I instinctively began to read to escape from reality. However, despite my initial retreat, I slowly over the course of quarantine came to a surprising realization that instead of detaching myself from the world, reading was giving me tools to more healthily and actively come to terms with my reality post COVID-19. Being in quarantine during the stress of the pandemic and the intensity of the Black Lives Matter movement initially left me overwhelmed and anxious. Yet the more I read, the more adjusted I became. I am fortunate to have been able to use reading as both a reprieve from reality, as well as an educational tool to become a more productive version of my isolated self.
One of my first reads after returning home was Quiet by Susan Cain, a book about the benefits of introversion. One of Cain’s key claims is that solitude is an ideal state of being for pursuing improvement within a skill set. This is due to the absence of outside distraction leading to more effective concentration. After reading Cain’s book, I was surprised to find that I was beginning to look at the shutdown differently—less as an imposition, and more as an opportunity to pursue personal improvement. While it has been months since that initial reading, the positive association I created with forced isolation has not disappeared. With the extra time, I began to practice the piano again, started exercising consistently, and began to write and read with higher frequency. Viewing isolation as a benefit allowed me to bypass my frustration and instead direct that energy in a more productive way.
Shortly after, I also read another self-exploration book, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Manson’s work hinges on the argument that if you want to do something you should do it, because no one actually cares if you do it or don’t. He emphasizes removing the fear of judgment from decision making. Many of the skills I began to pick up, such as relearning the piano, I chose to do for myself. I’ve tried to relearn piano in the past, but it never stuck in part because I was worried that people would judge how I played. My motivation to learn was skewed towards others’ approval, and over time it wained.
After reading Manson’s book and deciding to relearn to play the piano for my own enjoyment, unafraid of judgement, I was able to create a healthy and empowering form of motivation. The pandemic had created a feeling of hopelessness within me, but reading Manson gave me a sense of much needed agency. I gained drive. Cain’s ideal structure of isolation and Manson’s motivational argument gave me the perfect combination to further improve myself, and over time gave me the mindset to begin to look at the world with a more stable head.
As the pandemic continued I also began to notice situations in my books that strangely paralleled events happening in reality. Narrative works exposed me to unfamiliar worlds and worldviews. Hearing these voices helped me understand my reality through their eyes. One such work was Marisa Meyer’s fourth installment of the Lunar Chronicles series, Winter. I began reading the first book, Cinder, at the end of 2019, and had been slowly working my way through the series since then. The first three books had provided an escape from reality when life at Berkeley became especially stressful. Meyer’s sci-fi world became one of my homes, and over time I associated the story with a sense of joy and safety.
Because it had been some months since I had finished the third book, I decided to conclude the series in mid-June. In Winter, there is a constant threat and awareness of a deadly virus and plague known as “letumosis.” The disease is highly contagious and classified as a pandemic. It also, like our real world virus, has no vaccine. This fictional plague conjured up thoughts of the coronavirus, and it became surreal to read the novel knowing a similar event was taking place in my life.
When COVID-19 became common knowledge, I did not immediately think back to letumosis. However, upon revisiting the series, I realized that I had perhaps adjusted so smoothly to social distancing because subconsciously I was already familiar with the concept and its effectiveness. In Cinder, characters are intermittently shown to be in quarantine and are constantly checking themselves and others for symptoms. I realized I had been doing just this when COVID-19 appeared, and may have been more accepting of health official’s guidelines because of Cinder. Reading about how to act in a pandemic in a fictional work taught me how to act and react to COVID-19 in the real world.
The second major event to occur in quarantine was the initial outburst and continuing struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement. After the killing of George Floyd, calls online and on social media urged the public to take action and become educated on Black lives and voices. I tried to be as involved as the pandemic would allow me, and one of my actions was to read my father’s copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The book is crafted as a letter to Coates’ son and is a beautiful and blatant account of what it means to be a black man within the United States. Coates discusses his life growing up, and wonders throughout the work if the struggles he faced as a young black man will be the same struggles his son will face.
One section of the book that I resonated greatly with was his recollections from his years as a college student at Howard University. As a college student myself, I connected to his awe of the education system and the chance to meet new and different people. After he left Howard, one of his former classmates was murdered by a white cop while driving to visit his girlfriend. At that moment in the work, there was a distinct moment and shift in his worldview from themes of innocence and youth to states of fear and rage.
A similar and collective shift, I believe, took place in many after the killing of Geroge Floyd. The anger and the mourning of protestors helped influence the push for change and reform. Over the course of my life I have been fortunate to be aware of, but still have a degree of separation between, my race and violence. There were parts of me, when riots began, that still didn’t fully understand protesters’ need for violence. After reading Coates’ book, after relating to his college experience and then translating his emotions into my context, and then to take it one step further, to relate that context to the institutionalized racism that has permeated through this nation, I began to understand. I admit I still do not know everything, but I am continuing to try. I am trying to be better. Had I not read Coates, part of me might still be confused or angry at the reaction and continuing reactions of protesters. But I am not anymore.
The benefits of isolation. Virus safety. Institutionalized racism. At the beginning of quarantine, I was not expecting these topics to become a marker in my life in such a personal and relevant way. I strongly value the process of reading, and over the course of the pandemic thus far, reading authors like Cain, Manson, Meyer, and Coates allowed me to learn skills and perspectives applicable to a productive life during and after quarantine. Looking back, I know I will point to reading as the primary way I coped with the pandemic.
However, COVID-19 is not yet gone. The issues that it exposed, such as a society’s disregard for safety practices and continuing acts of violence in structures of racism, will not disappear when the virus dissipates from the limelight. Nor will COVID-19 be our last pandemic. Reading shaped me into a more adjusted and adaptable human being. It has saved my mental stability and given me the courage to confront my moral and intellectual blind spots. If you want to understand the world, especially in the era of COVID-19, I simply suggest that you read.