As I scanned the news in early spring watching the COVID-19 death tolls rise with each day, I felt three things: disbelief, dread, and depression. As the days in quarantine stretched on, I added another d to the list: doldrums. I needed something to occupy my mind besides CNN and Netflix.
With my beloved libraries closed, I turned to the books on my bookshelf. I scanned the motley assortment, targeting the unread books which had been gifts from other people throughout the years, their dust-covered spines a silent testament of my neglect. Most of the unread books covered topics so insipid I felt my brain go numb just reading the titles. There were books that discussed business strategies. Boring. Marriage enrichment. Why is it only women read these? Non-profit groups saving the world. Like I need any more guilt. Classics by James Fenimore Cooper. Too wordy. No wonder I hadn’t read these yet.
Out of curiosity, I scanned my children’s bookshelves for something I hadn’t read yet, and my eye fell upon a row of colorful spines. I pulled what turned out to be the first in a series of five books and was thereby introduced to the world of “The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall. For the next few weeks as I read through the series I found myself immersed in the antics of the four Penderwick sisters–Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty–and their faithful dog, Hound. They trespassed in moon-lit gardens, solved mysteries, saved a musically inclined boy from military school, traipsed through the woods, practiced football drills with the neighborhood boys, rescued dogs, and frolicked on beaches. Even during pain, loss, and the occasional sibling squabble, they maintained a strong family bond throughout and leaned on one another.
By the time I finished the last book, I felt my sense of equilibrium shift. While I liked the stories themselves, I liked how I felt after reading them even more—a pervading sense of hope that things would be ok again. There was a patch of sunlight penetrating the gloom surrounding me.
Hungry for more, I devoured other titles previously unknown to me. I read campy juvenile mysteries circa 1965 and vicariously wandered the streets of New York City in 1890 through the eyes of a newsie. I chuckled over the clever play on words and the continuous action in “The Phantom Tollbooth” and jumped through literal pages of a book in “Story Thieves.”
When the local libraries opened back up to the public offering curb-side service, I picked up “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood for a virtual book club I joined. While I found the plots compelling and appreciated the well-written prose, I was already suffering from an overdose of post-apocalyptic dystopia thanks to the news. I went back to the children’s bookshelves and this time settled on the fantasy series “The Five Kingdoms” by Brandon Mull.
I will confess that when someone asks me what I’m reading, I feel a little foolish to admit it’s juvenile fiction. Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” mentioned her previous morbidity at having people discover that she (gasp!) loved the Harry Potter series. During her quest to find something that made her happy every day, she finally overcame her embarrassment by embracing her preference—even going so far as to start a Harry Potter book club for adults. In doing so, she discovered that she was one of many grown-ups who loved the Boy Wizard and that there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of at all.
I will admit that I am not at that point yet. When someone asks what I’m reading and I tell them “Artemis Fowl,” I have a strong urge to quickly follow it up with something like “but I also read ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Bluest Eye’ this year!” lest someone think my literary tastes never advanced past the 6th grade.
I have not given up on adult literature, but I am taking a hiatus for now. During these times of isolation and uncertainty, there’s something about a good old-fashioned adventure in which everything turns out right that’s good for the soul. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.