Or, How the Pandemic Ate My Books
IN THE BEGINNING, there was exuberance and a feeling of much, much too much.
I was in Seattle then, for the Modern Language Association convention, back at the start of 2020. Academics who are used to attending these big, important conferences often jokingly refer to their “dance cards.” The metaphor is an apt if somewhat precious one: conference-goers make a game of filling their schedules with appointments, coffee dates, drink dates, business breakfasts, social lunches, and debauchery-laden dinners. The busier your conference dance card, the more you matter—or so goes a certain, tacit line of wisdom regarding these events.
My first time attending the MLA was back in 2014. I was fresh out of grad school and about four months into my first faculty position. With my own dance card looking conspicuously spacious, I had reached out to one of my former graduate school mentors to see if we might meet to discuss an article I was revising for a publication he had a long history with. The best he could do for me, he had responded, was a “pre-breakfast coffee” at the hotel Starbucks. We ended up meeting at seven in the morning—for fifteen minutes.
But the 2020 MLA was to be different, in part because I was different now. I had two books under contract, my first two books, both slated for publication in the coming year. And I knew people now, enough people to prompt awkward excuses for my having accidentally double-booked my drink dates. Everywhere I went, I found a familiar face to settle on and smile back at: a former grad school colleague, a professional acquaintance, a fellow committee member, a co-panelist, an editor or interlocutor, a guy I’d once sat next to at a dinner. And then there were the book launch parties: my bag was stuffed full of invitations and announcements, and so was my iCal. Each evening, I would set my sights on one of these parties, arrive, locate friends in the crowd, and then be carried off to another, regretting the promises I’d made to attend two others besides. A chain of celebration and indulgence and readerly good will seemed to encircle me. In the midst of it, I allowed myself to entertain the idea that I, along with what I was writing, might be on the way to mattering, maybe just the tiniest bit.
I wasn’t supposed to have two books coming out in 2020. That wasn’t the plan—or, at least, it wasn’t my plan. I had written them successively, one right after the other, and had assumed that a year or so of space would fall between their publications. But one of them, the academic one, got held up by the press while the other one, the popular one, surged forward along its production schedule. I had started to prepare for a very busy, very exciting spring 2020 and for the conversations that would take place then, which were to be the culmination of all the time I had spent alone writing the books. I had started to dream about the parties.
When spring came, though, it came for me like it came for everyone else: with lockdowns and toilet paper shortages and promises of “two weeks to flatten the curve,” until the promises lost their power and reality asserted itself in full. My first book came out in April and, goddamn it, I tried, we tried: me, the press, the editorial team, certain supportive colleagues, Twitter acquaintances who I now owe drinks, we all tried. And I did some virtual events. The first was a webinar that was sponsored by the archival institution that had supported my work on the book. I couldn’t see the audience, had no idea who was there, and I felt myself rambling. I was attempting to plug the holes in the conversation, to stuff them full of significance, to elevate the sound of my own voice above the level of a stumbling soliloquy. I logged out of Zoom wondering if any of it had worked and then went on to repeat the experiment several more times, not knowing what else to do.
I appeared on podcasts and in virtual classroom visits. To the faces who appeared on my screen at these events, whose smiles surfaced even if direct eye contact could not, I am forever grateful. These people read me, heard me, listened to me. In certain cases, even, they celebrated with me, raising their respective and very far-away glasses in concert with me and mine. I will not do any of these fine people the discredit of saying that those celebrations weren’t enough. I will only admit that none of them were quite what I had expected or dreamed about months before when, back at the MLA convention, a fire marshal had prevented me from ascending an escalator to the second floor to join a friend’s book launch party because the space was “already at capacity.”
HOW IS A book like a party?
In both cases, I would argue that the good ones are polyphonic, forged from a wide riot of voices. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Ecce Homo, sees reading as governed by “the continual pressure of having to listen”—not just to other voices and other periods of human history, but to what he terms “other selves.” Viewed in this way, reading is a very noisy business, with all those other voices and selves vying for space and attention. And it is here, on the subject of attention, that the two really start to converge: a book is nothing if not a plea for someone’s time and attention; a party is nothing if not also exactly this.
Take, for instance, one of literature’s preeminent party-goers and party-givers, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway. There is a compulsive quality to the way Virginia Woolf’s heroine goes about staging and planning her parties, even as she struggles to fit her motivations into words. “All she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They’re an offering; which sounded horribly vague.” In an imagined conversation with her friend and former lover, Peter, on the subject of parties, she repeatedly swaps the noun “party” for the even more amorphous and consequential “life.” The suggestion is that a party is a little instance of life, a disposable container for displaying all the inner workings of human social existence. Clarissa repeats the charge that her parties, though clearly a plea for attention on the part of a woman who has started to feel more invisible with each passing day, comprise a benevolent gesture, an “offering.” But an offering of what?
Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create …
Parties and books alike participate in this desire to gather together, to herd and collect all those singular “some ones.” Woolf’s grammatical separation of those words is no accident here: parties happen to erect fortifications against the general solitude of being.
The same is true of books. And for this reason, both of them—parties and books—demand of their authors a lot of bravery and daring. Every person who gives a party and dares to present a Clarissa-style “offering” agonizes over the prospect of failure. What if nobody comes? This happens, after all; it happened to me, once. In a very similar way, every writer dreams of their book as a happening, an event. Indeed, this is the only way to write a book—by way of and through the dream of making things happen, even as the writer’s nightmares repeatedly stage the prospect of their failure. What if nobody reads it? What if this makes nothing happen?
2020 WAS THE year I discovered that, often, things don’t feel real or like they’re even happening when they happen in isolation, without social surfaces to bounce one’s feelings off of. Those feelings, which get refracted by the people around you, are a test of a thing’s authenticity: I know it happened because to have it happen felt like this.
My education has taught me to regard books—both the reading and writing of them—as entrance points to a conversation, not as punctuation marks appearing at the end of one. Many of my most cherished relationships came about in just such a way, because of books. I remember how, once, at a conference in South Carolina, I was at a reception and a stranger approached and introduced himself. Recognizing the name, I immediately blurted, “Oh! I just read your book!” We started talking and have been friends and colleagues ever since, reading each other back and forth.
This is not to say, of course, that every party (and least of all every bookish party) holds the promise of such positive interaction. In fact, I would argue that friendly spats, social ruptures, and minor catastrophes are as central to the idea of parties as general feelings of bonhomie. Remember that Clarissa Dalloway’s party is a “failure”: at least, that’s what she calls it. And right along with it, it seems that most of literature’s most memorable parties are remembered chiefly as disasters. I’m thinking, for instance, of the party that occurs at the conclusion of Nella Larsen’s Passing and results in a main character’s death. Then there’s one in the opening scenes of Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys, populated by “a shy, elfin man whose prose style is among the most admired in the country,” “a leering, self-important old windbag,” and a “hollow stare of a woman who had wasted her life,” among others. These are not flattering portraits; this is not a fun party. And, as with Larsen’s, its climax comes with a death (though of a dog, not a person).
Then there’s the party in Marfa, Texas that takes place in Ben Lerner’s 10:04, inside an ultra-sleek modernist house, a space of “incoherent opulence.” At first, Lerner’s party looks like so many others of its genre. It has all the usual antagonisms, the generational divides, the rickety egos propped up with drugs and alcohol. But then a naïve intern ingests too much cocaine and is reduced to a vomiting, crying mess in the author-narrator’s arms. As Lerner describes, “With his arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, I walked him slowly inside, a parody of Whitman, the poet-nurse, and his charge.” The author of some distinction then proceeds to lie beside the panicking intern, calmly talking him into a stupor, while reflecting “Whitman would have kissed him. Whitman would have taken the intern’s fear of a loss of identity as seriously as a dying soldier’s.” The anxious intimacy of the scene is, to me, almost unbearable.
And yet, for all their disastrous tendencies, I cherish these fictional parties. Maybe it’s because they’re so recognizable to me. I’ve attended my fair share of bookish parties, both good and bad, over the years. There was, for instance, the one that took place in a graduate student’s house, built on stilts above an alligator-infested Florida swamp, where a faulty bathroom door resulted in my seeing more of the conference’s prestigious keynote speaker than I had wanted to. And another time, en route to a book party in Chicago in an over-stuffed Uber, the driver pulled onto Lakeshore Drive heading in the wrong direction and, for a second, I entertained images of my own fiery demise occurring as I sat thigh-to-thigh with one of my former dissertation committee members.
But more than these specific memories, I think my fascination with parties originates in the way that they go beyond simply delighting and gratifying and, in certain ways, also test us. I know myself to be braver in print than I am in person; in-person confrontations, including parties, become a way of scanning the boundaries of my own bravery and identifying its most vulnerable points. Such fruitful challenges are one of the many things that may be, but do not have to be, on offer at a party.
I had thought that, through the publication of my own books, I would be doing more of this—stringing up lights above the entrances to new conversational corridors, beckoning folks to come and check them out, to loiter with me along its forking paths, to paraphrase Borges. And I have to acknowledge that, in spite of everything, this has happened. I now find myself in conversation with people who I didn’t even know a year ago. But on the internet.
To converse on the internet, through social media, is to drink water from a glass that recently held red wine. There is the smallest tease of a taste, so maddeningly thin, that bleeds through and reminds you of what came before or could have been. It is not nothing but neither is it fully, satisfyingly something.
The writer and artist Jenny Odell, whose splendid book How to Do Nothing coached me through some of the worst parts of pandemic life, thinks of these interactions on social media in terms of “false targets.” Our contemporary technology, she argues, trains us to ask less of the conversations we would have: it feeds us that thin, dissatisfying flavor—that wine-laced-water—and erects “false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community.” A book is supposed to be the opposite of this: it’s a plea for attention, yes, but it’s also a monument to the act of having already paid attention. A book is an invitation to join the author in the work of paying attention to something that purportedly deserves it.
I picked up Odell’s book a few months into the pandemic because I was seeking to reckon with my own diminishing attention span. I had started to look back in wonder at the months I had spent writing my two books because that work, so newly concluded, suddenly felt totally impossible. In my head, I worried smooth the old adage about the tree falling in the forest without making a sound, wondering if the words I had written really existed. I wanted, neededreaders to verify and attest to their existence but most days, all I had was myself, and I had become a very bad, very inattentive reader.
“Doing nothing is hard,” Odell reminds us. Though it is often associated with indolence and leisure, reading actually requires quite a lot of the nothing that Odell is getting at, the “hard” kind of nothing. Add to that a host of existential concerns and distractions—a worldwide pandemic, loss of connection with family and friends, and a tanking economy, say—and that work, which is unique to the human species in the first place, starts to feel downright superhuman. As the pandemic dragged on, I wanted more than ever to seek solace and respite in books, but I found myself struggling to focus. It didn’t matter who the book was by or what it was about; it didn’t matter if I had selected it for escapism or edification; it didn’t matter, even, if it was good or bad. Regardless of such specifics, my mind would start to wander a few pages or sentences in, circling back to the myriad things that were making life hard. I could not install myself fully within the psychic space of what I was reading. There was too much everything; I could not clear enough space in my mind for Odell’s vision of “nothing.”
Given my own failings on this front, I knew I couldn’t fault other readers if my books had failed to secure their attention.
BUT HERE’S THE thing: they hadn’t failed. Not really. That’s just how it felt a lot of the time, too much of the time.
As with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic revised my understandings of what intellectual or readerly connection could feel like or be like. And I, caught in that transitional maelstrom, have had to work hard to get my bearings and register the change. But it’s true that what you see is mostly what you look for and once I started looking for them, for the toeholds marking the paths I had already traveled in conversation with others, the feelings of failure and doubt began to fade away. A columnist for an Irish newspaper stumbled upon one of my books and labeled it “charming”; an online book club invited me to speak at one of their meetings and sent out handmade, letterpress invitations for the occasion that mimicked the style of my book’s cover; emails trickled in—from colleagues, from strangers, from former students. I did interviews for the local NPR affiliate; for the wonderful, listener-supported radio powerhouse that is WFMU; and for my city’s alternative weekly paper, Seven Days.
There were no parties. There may never be. But then there were all these humble little happenings spurring me on, daring me to go and do it again—to dream and plan for tomorrow’s parties, if not today’s.