If you’re someone who has no access to physical libraries right now because they’re closed (in New York, for some reason, libraries aren’t considered “essential”; go figure), and for whatever reasons you can’t access electronic resources or don’t feel reading on devices is the same as “really reading” and yet you’re dying for reading material while you’re staying at home, are you completely out of luck?
No, of course not.
This is the time to look around your house and check out all the books and other reading material you already have at home*. If you’re like me, there are probably a lot of books in bookcases, on end tables, on nightstands and all over the place in your house. Those books come in two different categories: the ones you’ve never read, and the ones you’ve read before. Both of those can come in handy in a crisis like this.
Let’s start with the ones you’ve never read. You might be the kind of virtuous person who never buys books without reading them. I’m not. There are all kinds of reasons why I have books I haven’t read: people gave them to me, I bought them used and they were really cheap, I bought them because they looked interesting but then I never got around to reading them, they were advance review copies I picked up at Book Expo or the equivalent. Now is the time to start reading those books.
Maybe you didn’t read them before because you didn’t have time (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which has been sitting on a shelf on my computer table for YEARS). Now you have time.
Maybe you did start reading them and then got distracted. If the distraction’s gone, why not give the book another try?
Maybe it’s a classic, one of those books you got because you always intended to read it, and then you were so intimidated by it that you couldn’t bring yourself to start it, or you started it and then were overwhelmed and couldn’t bring yourself to finish it. Ulysses is that book for me; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started that book and never got farther than a hundred pages in or so. Wouldn’t it feel great to check that one off my life list?
Maybe you started it, put it down for a bit and then lost it (don’t laugh, I’ve done that more often than I care to admit). Now you can dig it up again and give it another try.
Maybe the reason you never finished it was because it wasn’t the right time for you. There are just books that you’re not ready to read until you’ve experienced certain things. For instance, I’ve long thought it was stupid of English teachers to assign Dickens’ Great Expectations to high school students, not because it’s by Dickens (whom I love), but because the themes of the book are much more likely to resonate with adults who’ve had a chance to see the distance between their youthful dreams and the realities they’ve made than with kids who haven’t been disillusioned that way yet. So if there’s a book you’ve kept on your shelves but never read because it didn’t seem to have anything to say to you, maybe your life has changed enough that the book will resonate with you now when it didn’t before.
Now let’s turn to the books you’ve already read. If you’ve read them and kept them around, you must have liked them (or else you just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them or give them away, but even so, if they were books you really hated, even the person who’s most afraid of destroying books would find a way to get rid of them). There’s definitely something to be said for reacquainting yourself with old friends like that. If it’s been a long time since you read them, all the better. You might not even remember the plot or the characters, so it will be like reading them for the first time.
And even if you remember the plot and the characters and bits of dialogue, so what? Sometimes you can read something a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time and see things you didn’t see the first time, when you were reading for plot, or turning pages so quickly you didn’t notice details. Sometimes it’s cool to be able to see the nearly invisible structure that makes a book work, to notice the footwork that leads to the exciting and brilliant effects.
Besides, with the books you’ve already read, you know what you’re getting, so you can choose the book or books that gives you what you want or need right now. When I’m feeling the need for funny short stories about British lawyers, I turn to my collection of Rumpole books by John Mortimer. When I want some American history, I can choose my era, reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for a thrilling one volume history of the Civil War, or Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris about Theodore Roosevelt, or Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, about the later years of President John Adams (yes, I am a history nerd; is anyone surprised?). Or I can go through my collection of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (I’m not sure I have all of them, but I have quite a few), for some wonderful characters and brilliant satire. I can slant my reading to my mood and be sure of getting something I’ll enjoy, and how often can you say that about something new?
So if you’re a reader and you’re feeling anxious about this current shutdown of libraries, you can find ways to keep yourself happy and well-read. And don’t worry, there will be plenty of new books to devour when the libraries open up again. Promise.
*If for some reason you don’t have any other reading material at home, then I’m sorry, you really are out of luck. But if you’re a reader, I’m willing to bet you have reading material at home somewhere. Keep looking.