Like many people, I’m finding it hard to focus on reading. But, as I wander aimlessly around my home half-doing pointless tasks, audio in my pocket is lending a comforting backing-track to my self-isolation.
When do I listen? Certainly not when I’m writing. I can’t bear any kind of noise then, apart from the single exception of the background sounds of a cosy cafe. But the current lockdown means that muted conversation and the gasping bursts of the espresso machine aren’t available right now. No cafes, no lattes with a buttered teacake on the side, no murmured chit-chat.
I like to listen while I’m cooking, cleaning, and doing odd jobs. Sometimes I sew a few stitches into the tapestry I’ve been working on for years, sometimes I knit. Sometimes I just sit back in a chair with my eyes closed and simply sink into it. I’ve even exercised while I listen – see Exercise at home with Yuval Noah Harari!
The image at the top of this post shows the history of my recent reading. In early March I started on a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages – The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff . But as the days passed, so did my concentration, and eventually I had to abandon it for something lighter and, frankly, less depressing.
So I went back to an old favourite, Joan Didion, to check on anything I may have missed. I loved her writer’s notebook South and West and gulped it down quickly. Then I moved on to downloading her first novel, Run, River. It was a strange experience, to listen to the first book by a young woman who would later become famous, and to recognise stylistic traces that were to become well-known footprints in the books she had yet to write. Run River is not the kind of story I normally read, and I probably would have given up quite soon and returned the book for a refund (Audible do that and it’s very handy at such times) but, since it was Joan, I stuck with it during quite a few dinner preps, washing up and even, one day. whilst cleaning the kitchen-floor.
By then it was April, and I needed something even easier and more familiar. For years I’ve dipped in and out of Sara Paretsky‘s detective stories. Now, I decided, it was time to be systematic. This proved a good choice for my poor Covid-addled brain because, although I haven’t had any symptoms, my mind is fragmenting more every day.
I can just about cope with the sameness of these stories, whose tropes have often irritated me in the past but now feel like a comfort blanket. It goes like this: intrepid hard-hitting Chicago feminist detective V.I. Warshawski always gets beaten up a few times, one of them very badly. She starts dating a good-looking man who is reasonably OK in bed but the romance never lasts beyond the end of the book. She infuriates the police department with her independent sassiness, then goes off on her own and overdoes it until she’s exhausted, but bounces back again after whisky and a hot bath. The story usually ends on a cosy positive note often involving a dog walk.
This means that as V.I. once more takes out her trusty set of pick-locks and gets to work on someone’s front door, I can relax into my vegetable-chopping, or pan-washing, or bath cleaning, and breathe a sigh of relief. This is the kind of story I can manage, even though all hell has broken loose out there in the world in places I cannot see from my windows.
So far I’ve consumed Indemnity Only (Book 1), Killing Orders (Book 3), and Bitter Medicine (Book 4). Book 2 is missing from Audible, a mystery in itself. Today I’ve reached Blood Shot (Book 5) and it’s downloading while I write this final paragraph. So excuse me please, it’s time to start the washing-up.
Postscript: Of course, the irony is that, throughout all of this, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is the book that I (and you) absolutely SHOULD be listening to. But my brain and my heart and my gut just cannot take it in. We will see the impact of that situation later down the line, and it probably won’t be pleasant.