Shelf isolation: books to read right now

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For those of us in Canada with only indirect experience of the coronavirus to date, the internet has become a terrifying news avalanche interspersed with the occasional recommendation for how to entertain oneself in lockdown. Options seemingly abound: prestige TV, museum tours, livestreamed concerts, even the opera.

But given that, for many of us, working from home means spending hours and hours on the computer, by the end of the day my eyeballs feel like they're going to fall directly out of my head and the last thing I want to do is stare at a screen. So, what's one to do?

Read books, of course.

But where, you might be saying, do I get these elusive books? Everything is cancelled!

Alongside the unsettling news that this pandemic might help Amazon grow even larger is the fact that social distancing is bad for small businesses -- including independent bookstores. Add to this the fact that many Canadian authors with new books have had to essentially cancel their publicity campaigns, bad news in an industry with already small margins. To take one example: Growing Room, Vancouver's feminist literary festival, was set to feature an impressive and diverse slate of emerging authors and was recently cancelled due to the outbreak.

Luckily, many indie bookstores are offering drive (or walk) by pickup or free delivery. Massy Books in Vancouver is offering free local delivery, as are Toronto's Type Books and Flying Books. Other bookstores are offering discounted cross-Canada shipping, such as Winnipeg's McNally Robinson and Munro's Books in Victoria ($5 to ship anywhere in B.C.)

Of course, the economic uncertainty triggered by social distancing means that many don't have the resources to buy new books. This leaves some with limited options, given that most public libraries are closed. If you already own an e-reader, many library systems offer e-books (the novels by Mandel, Lim, Dimaline and Walker, mentioned below, are all available in e-format from the Toronto Public Library, for instance). Massy Books owner Patricia Massy also adds, "if you don't have any money but want to read, let us know. We have a stockpile of books we can give away for free."

Memoir

When it comes to what you should read, Massy recommends In My Own Moccasins, written by her cousin Helen Knott. "We encourage all who live on Turtle Island to read this book," Massy says. "Although written with her Indigenous kin in mind, In My Own Moccasins illuminates the dark spaces many wish not to acknowledge in order to carry us down a good path forward. She speaks to the violence Canada perpetrates against Indigenous bodies and spirits, while enveloping her readers in care."

Another highly anticipated new memoir is Harry Dodge's My Meteorite, recommended by Type manager Kyle Buckley. Dodge is an acclaimed visual artist who featured heavily in his wife Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts, which was about their relationship throughout Nelson's pregnancy with their first child. Those who loved The Argonauts' take on queer forms of family will surely be interested in Dodge's thoughts on the creative process, child- and parenthood, and loss.

Fiction

Reading dystopian fiction might seem counterintuitive during these times, but I personally find something oddly comforting about fictional representations that mirror the strange reality we've all started living in. If you feel the same, might I suggest reading Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 novel Station Eleven? Set several years after a flu-like illness has completely reshaped the world (gulp), Mandel's novel centers on a troupe of actors who travel to different settlements and perform Shakespeare's plays. It's a surprisingly hopeful take on dystopia.

Vancouver writing consultant Marisa Grizenko recommends another refreshing take on apocalyptic times, Thea Lim's An Ocean of Minutes, in which a 1980s flu pandemic separates two lovers via time travel. Workers who travel to the future are subject to discrimination and unjust working conditions. 

In Lim's novel, "the pandemic only invites an intensification of neoliberal practices," says Grizenko. "The people turn to corporations for salvation, everything is measured by its potential for profit (especially the human being), and existing inequalities become even more entrenched. [It] certainly won't offer psychological respite from the news cycle, but the world it creates is compelling and has a way of clarifying what's at stake for us all."

Cherie Dimaline's young adult novel The Marrow Thieves depicts a world wracked by climate change in which people lose the ability to dream, prompting the Canadian government to re-open residential schools. Like Lim, Dimaline uses her speculative setting to critique current conditions, by putting the lie to the idea that reconciliation in this country is a fait accompli.

Rupert McNally of Ben McNally Books suggests The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, which is about a mysterious sleeping sickness that spreads through an isolated college town. Walker's novel is a "very thoughtful look" at pandemics, McNally says, because it "brings home the notion that so much of this is outside our understanding. There's a certain disbelief that something like a cold can have such an impact on the fabric of our lives. I think the reality of the situation hits home to people at different times, and there's usually one thing that wakes them up to seriousness of what we're dealing with. This book explores that well."

Nonfiction

If cultural criticism is more your speed, Massy recommends Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Spacewhich is about ableism in fairy tales. Written by Amanda Leduc, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, Disfigured looks at the way fictional representations of disabled characters (like The Lion King's Scar) "shape society's treatment of disability," Massy says. "Leduc’s exhaustive treatment of the most beloved stories we tell ourselves is paired with an admirable clarity of more just forms of storytelling."

Ideally, the slowed pace of life under social distancing can also provide opportunities for reflection not normally permitted by the fast pace of normal life. If you feel the same, Martha Sharpe, co-owner of Flying Books, recommends Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing. Odell's book begins with the idea that the digital revolution has turned us all into unwitting tech workers producing data for Google and Amazon, and that the most effective way to resist this constant, uncompensated labour is to simply...do nothing. This idea feels especially provocative in the current moment, with articles circulating online about how to "stay productive" while working from home. What if, instead of trying to maintain the same constant pace of productivity, we used this time to reconsider what work and leisure actually mean?

Stay safe, keep your distance, and happy reading!

Christina Turner is an assistant editor at rabble.ca and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Toronto. Katherine Shwetz also contributed recommendations for this article. 

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