There is so much to hate about sheltering in place, but I found something to love: listening to books with my husband. This morning, after coffee and the paper, and before the predicted rain, Rob and I took a walk and listened to Writers & Lovers. Rob held my cell phone between us, and a narrator began reading Lily King’s novel, picking up where we’d left off. For two miles, we immersed ourselves in someone else’s worries and wishes, stopping only when a leaf blower roared or one of us said, “Wait, go back 30 seconds.” I waved to a runner practicing social distancing, avoided a friendly dog, pointed to a blue jay, and put my hands on my heart to thank a masked UPS driver. But mostly, Rob and I—writers and lovers—tuned out the pandemic and focused on fiction.
We know how lucky we are to be able to start a day like this. Twelve years ago, our daughter, Lizzi, then a college sophomore, couldn’t breathe without the help of a ventilator. She had double pneumonia and was intubated for eight days. I’ll never forget how happy Lizzi was to taste air again and how grateful we were—and will forever be—to all the health-care providers who brought her back from the brink.
Today, Lizzi has a husband and baby, and she, like our other daughter, is sheltering out west while Rob and I are holed up in my childhood home. We work. Rob cooks. We reach out to family and friends, especially those living alone. We FaceTime with our daughters when they let us. And we do our best to fend off fear, anger, and restlessness.
Rob and I met as students in Spain and married when we were in our early 20s (don’t try this at home, folks), so we’ve had plenty of time to bond over Shakespeare and Cervantes, Wallace Stegner, Jhumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, and Anthony Doerr. But while Rob is my go-to date for TV, movies, and theater, I talk books with my book club. Since 1991, I’ve read about 300 works of fiction and nonfiction with them, one month at a time. Our last in-person meeting was March 4. I felt nervous, giddy, as I asked everyone to wash their hands before I offered wine and hors d’oeuvres. (Remember chips and dips? Remember bowls of nuts?)
Before the shelter-in-place orders, the only time Rob and I ever listened to books was during long road trips. We despaired for the Joads and shuddered and cheered during Educated, Beartown and The Nickel Boys. Sometimes we sped up the narration, then slowed it down when a passage was confusing or stirring. We abandoned books too. No need to name names, but, well, Rob wasn’t taken with Emma and Rebecca, and I got bogged down in Sapiens and Overstory.
For April, my book club chose A Long Petal of the Sea. Rob and I were shut-ins at that point, and I was having trouble reading. I asked if he’d mind if we listened during dinner. Quaranteammates 24-7, it’s not like we were regaling each other with anecdotes about our day flattening the curve. Why not let Isabel Allende pull up a chair? Why not let her tell us about human beings fleeing across the Pyrenees, cold, hungry, and on foot? It would certainly put any ennui into perspective.
It took 10 hours, over breakfast, over wine, and once under the extra-bright stars. But when my book club met on Zoom, 11 rectangles on a screen, I was ready to talk about the Spanish Civil War, as well as hair dye, job insecurity, and families.
I pressed “Leave Meeting” and wondered when we’d be able to open our homes and arms again. I downloaded another Allende novel, The Japanese Lover, this one for my book club à deux. I also switched from Audible to Libro.fm, because it supports independent bookstores. Both apps are under $15 a month, and I’ve caught myself proselytizing about the benefits of audiobooks. “Tom Hanks will read you The Dutch House while you cook! Michelle Obama will read Becoming! Trevor Noah will read Born a Crime—with all the accents!” As the ad says: priceless.
I’m still finding it hard to read. But being read to? That’s as comforting as it was when I was a kid in a bunk bed. And right now, comfort is in short supply. So yes, read to me. Read to us.
When we get to the other side, will Rob and I find time to let books speak to us? I don’t know. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Carol Weston’s 16 books include Speed of Life. She’s now working on a novel about a princess in a painting by Velázquez.