Over the last several weeks, like you, I have had to live in a scary world with increasing restrictions on what I am permitted and not permitted to do. For instance, I am allowed to go only to certain places and just for specific reasons. My walks with my dog have a boundary, a limit; they are restricted to a 100-meter circumference of my home. As of this morning, I must cover my nose and mouth with a mask when I go outside. My wife and I had to celebrate Passover alone, without family or friends. And, I am not allowed to pray in a synagogue.
During this time, I have come across several reading lists, books suggested as particularly relevant to the circumstances in which we all find ourselves. The lists I’ve seen have included fiction and non-fiction titles. I have noticed, for example, on various recommended reading lists – The Plague by Albert Camus; The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton; A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman; and The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry. These are all excellent books. One can learn much by reading them. I remember reading The Andromeda Strain years ago in the philosophy of science course I took at Mississippi State University. It was used as an illustration of the scientific method in action.
I, too, would like to suggest a list, a modest one containing just four books. What they have in common is their perspective. All look at a severely restricted and frightening life, one much more constrained and fearful than the one I am currently living, from people who had to live it. In all four books, the narrators’ lives are controlled by forces entirely outside themselves. My list, like those I have seen, contains fiction, one book, the first one, and non-fiction, three books. To give a tiny taste of each book, I’ve included their opening paragraph, with one exception, the last one.
(1) One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
THE HAMMER BANGED reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (FSG Classics) (p. 3). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
(2) Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. The book originally appeared in English under the title If This Is a Man.
I was captured by the Fascist Militia on December 13, 1943. I was twenty four, with little wisdom, no experience, and a decided tendency—encouraged by the life of segregation forced on me for the previous four years by the racial laws to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female friendships. I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion.Levi, Primo. Survival In Auschwitz (p. 5). Kindle Edition.
(3) Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl.
THIS BOOK DOES NOT CLAIM TO BE an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?Frankl, Viktor E.. Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 3). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
(4) The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.
[The following entry from Anne Frank’s diary is not the opening paragraph of the book. Instead, I have selected the entry for the day that she and her family went into hiding. “Kitty” is her name for her diary.]
THURSDAY, JULY 9, 1942. Dearest Kitty, So there we were, Father, Mother and I, walking in the pouring rain, each of us with a schoolbag and a shopping bag filled to the brim with the most varied assortment of items. The people on their way to work at that early hour gave us sympathetic looks; you could tell by their faces that they were sorry they couldn’t offer us some kind of transportation; the conspicuous yellow star spoke for itself.Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl (p. 22). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
By the way, as you can tell, I do much of my reading on a Kindle. My Kindle allows me to pick up a book immediately without leaving my house. No mask, no limitations on distance, and free of infection. Heartily recommended!
May you have the strength to do what you need to do in all of the circumstances in which you find yourself.
All the best,