During this season of coronavirus and isolation, Jerry Becker is rereading P.G. Wodehouse’s “A Bounty of Blandings,” an English tale of an earl, his prize-winning pig and his demanding family.
The WSU Libraries system administrator takes comfort from Wodehouse’s
trusted humor and the words of fellow author Evelyn Waugh: “Wodehouse
is an anodyne to annoyances. He’s a tonic for those suffering from
bearable but burdensome loads of boredom, from jadedness of outlook and
dinginess of soul.”
“What I like most is his use of language, comic turn of phrase,
whimsical point of view and ability to find humor in the everyday life
of the early 20th century,” Becker said. “When reading his stuff, I find
myself applying Wodehouse quotes and ‘isms’ to circumstances in our
daily life here at home with my wife. It makes us laugh!”
For many now, a reading journey can bring much-needed laughter; feed a
hunger to understand; and create an allowable human connection amid the
restrictions of social distancing. Here, then, is a reading list from
WSU Libraries faculty and staff that can’t help but be influenced by
these strange, anxious, lonely times.
We have been here before
Several of those polled about their reading pursuits found themselves
delving, not surprisingly, into pandemics of the past. Manuscripts,
Archives and Special Collections rare books cataloger Julie King is
reading “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe; the novel, published in 1722, concerns the plague epidemic in London in 1665.
Other possibilities, courtesy of scholarly communication librarian Talea Anderson, are the 1947 novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus and the 1992 science fiction novel “Doomsday Book”
by Connie Willis. “‘Doomsday Book’ is an especially haunting retelling
of how people experienced loss on its most intimate level during the
spread of the bubonic plague,” Anderson said.
Erica England, first-year experience librarian, chose “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”
(2012) by Carol Rifka Brunt. The book is set in 1987 during the AIDS
scare and tells the story of how a young teenage girl mourns the loss of
her gay uncle to AIDS, while learning to accept who she is and who he
I’ve read this book before, it’s been a few years, and I thought now
would be the perfect time for another reading of it,” England said.
“Ultimately, it’s about profound loss and the giant grief that
accompanies it. But it’s also about finding yourself in that loss and
finding your way through it. Above all, it shows how compassion can make
us whole again. And I think during this time, we need compassion more
than anything else in the world.”
Special collections librarian Greg Matthews said he read a review of “Florence Under Siege”
(2019) by John Henderson about a month ago. The book details how the
city of Florence handled plague for a year in the early 17th century.
The city health department, the Sanita, consulted with peers in other cities such as Milan and Venice to contain the plague by closing the city; establishing lazzarettos, or quarantine stations, in civic and church spaces; and providing daily rations of food and drink for the entire populace.
But the picture wasn’t entirely sunny, Matthews said. One of the more
appalling dimensions of life during plague in Florence was the
perception that poor people were too selfish and stupid to discourage
the spread of disease to their betters. Also, Jews were suspected of
being plague vectors, maybe malicious ones.
“So it’s not as though people were behaving at their best,” he said.
“People carried on, insisted upon living their lives by dancing,
gossiping and courting.
“The book uses contemporary eyewitness accounts to tremendous effect,
describing the empty streets of the city and how certain citizens were
taken into custody for (being accused of) endangering their neighbors by
talking to passers-by through windows or staying with friends,”
Matthews said. “It’s been illuminating and affirming. For a book about
death and dying, it is filled with life. If the story it tells has
heroes, then they are compassion and human ingenuity.”
Comforting and humorous reads
takes many forms during times like these. Trevor Bond, associate dean
of digital initiatives and special collections, is reading WSU English
professor Buddy Levy’s 2019 book “Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition.” Bond bought a copy at a local reading Levy gave shortly before coronavirus concerns halted campus activities.
“The vivid descriptions of men living in close quarters in subzero
temperatures in months of complete darkness somehow bring me comfort in
this period of social distancing and isolation,” Bond said. “Buddy is a
terrific writer and a great colleague.”
For Talea Anderson, our current circumstances remind her of a similar
experience of isolation when she taught for four months in Costa
Rica—and the books that helped her.
“I experienced an incredibly lonely time when all I really had for
comfort were books,” she said. “Two books that resonated with me were ‘Refuge’ [1991, by Terry Tempest Williams] and ‘Crossing to Safety’ [1987, by Wallace Stegner].”
Neither of them is explicitly about quarantine or isolation, but the
characters in both novels are struggling to come to terms with the
deaths of loved ones (and in Williams’ case, the added loss of reliable
comfort in natural settings). Both books are pretty melancholy, but the
writing is beautiful—comforting in itself—and I found it cathartic as
well to see characters grappling with the same emotions I was feeling.”
director Dawn Butler suffered an initial disappointment in her reading
journey. (“I can say with a high degree of confidence the 2019 sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ would likely make anyone of conscience more anxious—not the best decision I’ve made.”) But she has since downloaded “Three Men in a Boat,” a humorous account of a two-week boating holiday on the River Thames by English writer Jerome K. Jerome, published in 1889.
“I’ve also started ‘The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’
[2019, by Juliet Grames] and like it,” Butler said. “One sentence that
resonated with me is ‘… I will offer my opinion that it is the moral
responsibility of the incompetent to identify their own weaknesses and
not accept positions of power.’”
A few final selections
Owen Science and Engineering Library evening lead Libby McKeighen
suggests any nonfiction book by Sam Kean. He is the author of such books
Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the
History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” (2010) and “The
Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of The Human Brain as
Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery” (2014).
“They are science/history and really informative, but they are also
engaging and funny,” McKeighen said. “I myself have had them distract me
during particularly hard times in my life.”
Jen Saulnier, undergraduate services librarian, recommends the 2019 book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed
by Lori Gottlieb. “This is a great read for anyone interested in mental
health, humanity and empathy—all extremely important topics at the
moment,” she said.
Human resource coordinator Bonny Boyan suggests “Not Tonight Josephine”
(2016) by George Mahood. “It would be an especially great read for
someone who wishes they could be traveling instead of stuck at home,”
she said. “It is laugh-out-loud funny. I might just need to read it
A last suggestion comes from yours truly: “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death”
(2019) by funeral director Caitlin Doughty. The author of two other
bestsellers, creator of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and founder of
The Order of the Good Death answers questions from children about death,
dead bodies and decomposition.
As Doughty writes in the book, “All death questions are good death questions, but the most direct and most provocative questions come from kids.”
—Story by Nella Letizia