The apocalypse of the last two years has been marked in my life, not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the subjects of the books I have read. I started reading more regularly during this time and found myself immersed in a genre of existential stories which, whether I realized it or not at the time, added even more apocalyptic material to my view. darkened from the world. After Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the injustice of war seared into my brain in addition to the rise in COVID-19 cases. After Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” it was sickness and sadness and the fact that the human condition was beginning to appear fractured. These and other novels have left me unsettled by the passage of time for longer than I care to admit. I loved books like these, anxious and pessimistic as they made me. They changed my way of thinking. I felt changed by the authors’ use of language, which was powerful and fascinating. They were beautifully written and meant something. There was no doubt to me that they were worth my time.
Yet as the pandemic dragged on into the real world, and insurmountable mundane issues and existentialism piled into the fiction I consumed, I began to yearn for escape. I loved these books, but needed a break. I wanted to be happy while reading, not because I liked the writing or because of Vonnegut’s dry, satirical humor, but because the stories themselves were happy. I wanted a pleasant and exciting book. I wanted stuffed animals. I wanted romance. I wanted the characters to ground themselves in who was getting what they wanted in a clear and crisp way that I didn’t have to struggle to understand.
So I decided to find a cute and fluffy romance novel. It couldn’t be too hard, I was thinking. Not a big romance reader myself, I turned to the BookTubers I looked at, and they almost unanimously recommended “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” by Talia Hibbert. I checked it out at the library with maybe high hopes.
I liked “Chloe Brown”, but it wasn’t all I had dreamed of. I tried to invest myself in the story, to worry about whether the characters would end up together, but the reality was that I wasn’t. I couldn’t help but think that the story didn’t matter. I doubted it would affect me deeply in any way. I didn’t want that to be true. I certainly didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t appreciate romance novels because they weren’t heavy and dense and “serious.” I desperately wanted to take care of Chloe and her love, Red. I tried to push back my ambivalence towards the story, but in the end, it was impossible. I looked for other romance novels, but none appealed to me much more. I followed that failure with a series of thrillers – a genre I once loved – but the ones I chose, highly recommended, seemed generic; they weren’t like anything special and I stopped reading most of them after a few chapters. I didn’t want to read another heavy book yet. I always wanted something fun, but for some reason I didn’t like books that I thought would fit that description.
In deciding to write this for The Michigan Daily, I realized I had to think of a book that saved me. A book that had felt both meaningful and useful and had been truly energizing to read – fun in a non-depressing way. I knew I must have read such a book back then, and finding it was the logical conclusion to this article. Digging into my brain, thinking about every piece of fiction I’ve read in the last two years, I haven’t found anything that fits the bill.
The only recent read I could think of that felt both valuable and truly exciting—a book that made me think and brought me joy, both in its writing style and in its content— was the one I read during the winter holidays. The book was “I Love to Watch: Discussing My Way Through the Television Revolution”, a book of television reviews by Emily Nussbaum. This seemed to be the wrong answer to my question “which book could do both?” question. It was non-fiction and discussed real-world events, and not all of it was lighthearted. In addition to calling David Chase a sadist and making me laugh out loud in my living room, Nussbaum’s essays cover topics ranging from Trump’s election to sexism in the media world. This book was not “fluffy” or “cute”, like the book I thought I wanted. Looking back, at first I didn’t know why it didn’t make me sad. It was partly the content, I think. Finding escape in an art criticism book is a bit meta. It’s escaping into media on other media, discussing art that comments on the real world rather than touching reality directly. I was also bowled over by the realization that most of the loopholes I had found were in a non-fiction book. Wasn’t fiction supposed to provide an escape from reality?
But that wasn’t the only time this had happened. Another book resurfaced in my memory: “Pity the Reader,” the book of writing tips by Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell. A book of advice of any kind sounds like the opposite of an escape, but this book brought me such joy. Vonnegut’s advice is superimposed on McConnell’s, as well as his comments on his thoughts. Reading it was like reading a conversation between the two writers that I was almost part of.
This conversational feeling was the common thread, also present in “I Like to Watch”. Each essay is preceded by a paragraph in which Nussbaum puts the essay into perspective and comments on it. As short as they were, it brought her and the essays into the present and brought the reader into conversation with her. I had been trying for so long to find a connection between the characters, and most of the time I failed. I’m not sure exactly why I wasn’t clicking with the characters, but whatever connection I missed in the fictional entities, I found in the authors of these non-fiction books.
With non-fiction as the genre of choice for the pandemic, maybe escapism just wasn’t what I wanted at all. The books that should have provided it didn’t, and not because they weren’t good or because the characters weren’t well developed, but because, in my current state of mind, I was resistant to the very escape I thought I wanted. I was troubled by the events of reality and their depictions in the books I read, but I didn’t want to ignore reality. It was too important, and that was where I felt valued.
It wasn’t the escape I wanted, but the connection. I once heard in high school history class that previous “apocalypses” like the Great Depression had led to a preference for utopian fiction. But besides the pandemic itself, the horror of our current apocalypse is that it is pushing us apart. Escaping to an alternate reality didn’t bring comfort to that. I wanted reality – reality before it started, reality with other people, real humans. The nonfiction writers who came closest to doing this with literature were those who put their hearts, voices, and humanity into their words.
Daily Arts editor Erin Evans can be reached on email@example.com.