The Exquisite Pain of Reading in Quarantine

Books, precisely because they are so demanding of our attention, might be the best antidote for the psychological toll of a socially distanced life.

Jo Zixuan Zhou

The term bibliotherapy first appeared in a 1916 article in The Atlantic titled “A Literary Clinic.” Written by Samuel McChord Crothers, the playful essay verges on satire and recounts a visit with his friend Bagster, who runs a “Bibliopathic Institute.” “A book,” Bagster lectures, “may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific.” Bagster views books as “prescriptions” insofar as the reading experience affects the reader. “After reading [books] we actually feel differently and frequently we act differently.” Before Bagster can finish his lecture, he is called away to attend to a patient who had “overdose[d] of war literature.”

Then and now, someone prescribing books might sound rather like a quack entrepreneur in the wellness industry. Moreover, with an abundance of streaming options, why even pick up a book? But the coronavirus crisis has made it difficult, if not impossible, to relax. Most of the nation is quarantined indoors, upending daily routines. Time has become slippery, thick as quicksand, now that we’re unmoored from our usual frameworks.

To fill this void, those of us lucky enough to be inside have binged Tiger King, mastered sourdough, and scheduled Zoom happy hours. Several weeks into quarantine, some might crave an experience that requires more active participation, something that can consume us just as we can consume it. As watching a sitcom starts feeling too passive, we might turn more and more to reading, precisely because it is so demanding of our attention. Even if “A Literary Clinic” was intended as satire, it nonetheless belies a solid truth: Reading can be therapeutic. In fact, it might be the best antidote for the psychological toll of a socially distanced life.

I was maniacally scrolling through Twitter for the latest news and pandemic memes when I noticed a number of virtual book groups popping up in my timeline. Tolstoy Together, led by the novelist Yiyun Li in partnership with the literary magazine A Public Space, is reading a dozen pages a day from War and Peace, a classic Li has turned to time and again in moments of personal crisis. A long book, Li told me in an email, “requires patience, consistency, focus” and “gives our minds a necessary haven.” Robert Macfarlane, an environmental writer and the author of Underland: A Deep Time Journey, announced that he would facilitate a different group: a joint reading of Nan Shepherd’s seminal mountaineering memoir, The Living Mountain. Awed by Underland and wanting to read a story line that would not change, hour by hour, into something grimmer, I decided to partake in the latter.

The experience has been, by turns, surprisingly insightful and predictably frustrating, but above all, it has given me something to look forward to. Participants from across the globe have convened on Twitter to share bite-size thoughts, topographical questions, and personal photos in several threads braided together by the hashtag #CoReadingVirus. One user, a scout leader, posted a photo of Loch Avon, a prominent site in the book, and said his father once accompanied Shepherd on one of her walks. Another user, a poet, observed that graphs of the spread of COVID-19 resemble a “moving” mountain. Privately, I thought of Shepherd’s affinity for plateaus and our efforts to “flatten the curve” of infection.

Macfarlane told me via email that he started this reading group in part “to remember a world beyond the event horizon of COVID-19.” He hoped the “relatively slow pace” of the reading group, about two or three chapters a week, would help people “find new rhythms of being and thinking that will settle and anchor them a little.”

I attended the Twitter conversation live just once. The threads quickly unfurled as responses flooded in. I found myself swimming upstream, struggling to keep afloat. Though the exchange was intellectually enriching and had a surprising amount of back-and-forth, I found it didn’t satisfy any social itch of mine. I preferred to visit once the discussion had calmed and the algorithms had surfaced the most engaging comments to scan at my leisure. Moving a beat behind everyone else, I was better able to organize my thoughts.

Reading as a way of coping has a long history in the U.S. During World War I, librarians were stationed at military camps and hospitals to dispense books to soldiers. For those in camps, books alleviated homesickness and staved off boredom. For those in hospitals, books aided their convalescence and assuaged acute distress.

The therapeutic value of books can be derived from the act of reading as much as from the moral of a story or the distraction it might provide. Take The Living Mountain, written during World War II. This slender book is devoted to the Cairngorms, a low, rambling range in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. “The plateau is the true summit of these mountains,” Shepherd writes in the opening chapter, immediately reframing mountaineering literature, which traditionally consists of men conquering peaks. More of a walker than a climber, Shepherd preferred the inward path to the ascendant path. Her goal was not to best this mountain range, but “to know its essential nature.”

Shepherd attends to her body as might a physician. The Living Mountain prescribes a philosophy of bodily thinking, in which the body is a sensorium and the senses are avenues to knowledge. In exquisite prose, Shepherd writes of and from the senses—sound, smell, touch above all—with such heightened awareness that what she describes—“a sting of life” from a cold-water current, the “juicy gold globe” of a cloudberry—feels pristine and immediate. Engrossed in reading passages such as these, I felt present and disembodied.

“For Shepherd,” Macfarlane writes in his introduction to The Living Mountain, “the body thinks best when the mind stops, when it is ‘uncoupled’ from the body.” This is evidenced early in the book, when Shepherd recounts the story of an avid climber, who told her that “what he values is a task that, demanding of him all he has and is, absorbs and so releases him entirely.” Climbing is his release. Could reading do something similar, enabling its practitioners entrance into a flow state? Complete absorption in an activity can engender a feeling of abandon, a shedding of the world and self and time. (This transformative quality is notably distinct from, say, tunnel vision, which carries negative connotations of hyper-focus.)

For Shepherd, such moments of “pure focus” while walking are not about athletic performance, but learning. They come to her “most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being.” The same can be said of reading. There is a traffic of ideas between writer and reader, an intimate mingling of voices. Sometimes those voices become a single, narrative voice, and this too is born from rhythm.

“The true function of a literary critic is not to pass judgement on the book,” Bagster says, “but to diagnose the condition of the person who has read it.” So then, what is my condition?

Just as a body acclimates to new elevation, those who are sheltering in place will adjust to a highly restricted new normal. Ours is not a snowy peak, but a moving graph of COVID-19 cases still on the rise. In the shadow of this sick mountain, I found it difficult to concentrate on reading Shepherd’s book. I felt restless, anxious, on edge.

But there is no rush in reading, nor in walking. In fact, it is better not to rush. When my body finally settled and my mind quieted, I felt attuned to the lowest of frequencies, from within and without. I burrowed deeper into the reading, into myself, and for a moment, I felt like a loch, “withdrawn and tranquil.”