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Books in quarantine

They’re like pacifiers. Though it’s more involved than that; bad comparison. Something distracting and thought-provoking enough to avoid ennui,insulated enough to quell anxiety, and hopefully original enough to battle against the cliché that seems to be permeating this pandemic. More or less.

Context: Online learning has been one of my most stressful, anxiety-inducing experiences of the past year. It has been glaringly counterproductive, not that we had any other option, but rather this illusion Carleton—and other colleges across America—have, that online class is just in-person class but online, is incredible.

But I’ll leave the task of specific critiques to end-of-term surveys. I also don’t want this piece to become a Nicole Collins Pity-Party; quarantine has been a procession of yearnings for everybody and the one thing I’m positive people do not want to hear is more complaining—lest the top of their heads collectively blow off.

But since I returned home on March 13 there has been a steady precipitation of books in my room—or, more accurately, on my room. An obsession only seen during my more acute nervous spirals. My family jokes that it’s like traversing a minefield, walking through my space: step/hopping over trails of book-piles that slither from my door to my bed (rationale: so I don’t forget to read them); taking five minutes each evening before I sleep to migrate my books from my bed to either my desk or the floor, once the desk is filled to capacity; being completely engrossed in absently flipping through books on Zoom calls as they’re too hard to focus on to begin with; etc.

Jacques Derrida had once said that the typical American sense of humor had at its core a sense of normalizing the abnormal. Indeed that seems part of the whole thing here. In much the opposite way of Emmy Bovary reading sappy Italian novels to escape the mundanity of an unhappy provincial marriage, this fixation on books in my basement bedroom of Brookline, Mass. seems to thrive in the realization that whatever I come across, book-wise, is going to feel at once distracting from—and less scary than—capital-E Everything going on capital-O Outside. The memory is never as commanding as the experience. (My room has no windows.)

Academics have become a chore, online, and that old sense of curiosity and passion that always took over me in class has all but vanished. It’s difficult to do or produce much of anything. This 458-word column took two hours to write to a point where I did not despise it with all the power in my being. I hardly seem to be the only one experiencing this.

It could be worse. Sorry to gripe. But sometimes it’s hard to see over the stacks.

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