The coronavirus has put life on hold. In this time of fractured human contact and fear of the unknown, we need to read authors who will embolden us for the hard season ahead, while also offering a calming sense of perspective.
Eula Biss’s book-length essay On Immunity does the trick. She begins with the story of Achilles, whose mother dipped him in the river Styx only to leave the vulnerable spot on his heel where she held him. The story’s moral, in Biss’s words, is that “immunity is a myth … and no mortal can ever be made invulnerable”. And yet she admits that she found this message hard to accept after the birth of her son in 2009 – especially when, shortly afterwards, the swine flu epidemic began. Biss explores how hard it is for even the most clear-eyed of us not to succumb to panic and dread.
Gradually, though, she drags herself into the knowledge that we are stronger when we face our vulnerabilities collectively. She concludes that “immunity is a shared space – a garden we tend together”. On Immunity reminds us that we are precarious, mortal, dependent beings who need to look after each other. And this will always be true, whether we are facing a public health emergency or not.
Those enduring self-isolation may find it uplifting to read about the heroic efforts of political prisoners to retain their sanity through human connection. The Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan wroteI Will Never See the World Againwhile serving a life sentence on trumped-charges of treason. This wise and defiant book, composed in a tiny shared cell and smuggled out in notes to his lawyers, celebrates the power of words to dissolve human isolation. “Like all writers, I have magic,” Altan writes. “I can pass through your walls with ease.”
Sometimes we need to hunker down just as nature does, paring back to the basics of existence.
Original article https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/25/dont-panic-the-best-books-to-help-us-survive-a-crisis