Courtesy of Wikipedia

"The Decameron" by John William Waterhouse

March 30, 2020

YANDAVA | Literature in Isolation

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During these past couple of weeks, I have been spending much of my time reading. I often find that literature helps me make sense of the world in difficult times and gives me some comfort and solace when life feels chaotic and turbulent. I have compiled a list of books that show us what disease and isolation can tell us about ourselves and the world around us, books that offer a welcome distraction and provide a sense of hope and books I just recommend.

Many of the books mentioned here are quite old, so you can probably find them online at places like Project Gutenberg. In addition, the Internet Archive has opened the National Emergency Library, an online collection of about 1.4 million books that anyone can access until June 30 or whenever this pandemic is no longer a national emergency.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Structured as a frame story, The Decameron is about a group of seven young women and three young men who flee from crowded Florence to a deserted countryside villa during the time of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. To pass the time, each member of the group must tell a story every evening, resulting in a 100 tales told over ten days. Each day has a set theme, but the tone of the stories ranges from erotic to tragic to comic to didactic. In 1971, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted the novel into a film, which is also very entertaining when you need a break from reading.

The Plague by Albert Camus

Published in 1947, Camus’ novel tells of a plague sweeping through the French Algerian city of Oran and features a wide variety of characters including doctors, government workers, townspeople and vacationers. Although physicians have pointed out its medical and historical inaccuracies, The Plague is nonetheless a wonderful allegory of the human condition and the ways in which people deal with the concept of the Absurd, as well as death and suffering. Ultimately, Camus demonstrates how important connection and individual responsibility are in times of crisis.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Social distancing features prominently in this novel when Esther Summerson, the heroine, gets very ill after being in contact with a feverish young orphan boy and shuts herself up in her room to avoid infecting other members of the household. Although Dickens’ novel is not exactly about disease, disease becomes an important tool that links vast networks of diverse characters, connecting them across the bustling setting of nineteenth century London and beyond. However, as a counterpart, Dickens also shows us how acts of human kindness, too, create networks and link people, proving equally infectious and far-reaching.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this enormous tome because of a project called Tolstoy Together, which is being led by Yiyun Li and the independent publisher A Public Space. According to Li, “I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide.” Over the course of about three months, Li portions out a little bit (about 12-15 pages) of the novel to read each day, and the project’s Twitter hashtag allows readers to follow along and share thoughts, opinions, and questions. I’ve found that committing to this reading has helped me retain a sense of routine and structure in my life, and the collective nature of the project is an uplifting demonstration of how literature can bring people together.

Blindness by José Saramago

Portuguese author José Saramago’s 1995 novel centers around an epidemic that causes people to go blind. The blind are subsequently put into a quarantine camp that quickly degenerates into a kind of hell encompassing all the horrors of the twentieth century. However, the narrative voice is humorous, often ironic, and it’s this tongue-in-cheek quality that allows the reader to face these horrors. Also, not to spoil anything, but Saramago at least rewards us with a happy ending, which feels properly earned.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The sentiment that has been making the rounds on social media and especially in the college student memosphere is that if Shakespeare could write King Lear in quarantine, why can’t you? However, if that seems too daunting a task, you could do the next best thing: Read it! Though Shakespeare’s play is not exactly explicit about the plague, the language and images of destruction, death and despair abound. Once deemed as excessive, Shakespeare’s stunning portrayal of suffering, madness and human cruelty now seems rather apt.

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

This is more of a philosophical book — technically a book about architecture but really more a book about art and poetry — in which Bachelard conducts a phenomenology of spaces such as attics and cellars. Drawing on a variety of literary sources, Bachelard meditates on the emotional, intellectual and symbolic resonances of our houses and interior spaces. As many of us are spending more time inside than ever before and perhaps starting to catch a little cabin fever, The Poetics of Space allows us to see these places in a new light and with greater appreciation.

The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson

What I find nice about reading a collection of poetry is that you don’t have to go in order or even read everything; instead, you can dip in and out as you wish, going wherever something catches your fancy. Dickinson’s verses are all the more appealing in their brevity, both of length and line; however, don’t be fooled — her main themes of love, death, immortality, pain, despair and hope are treated with incredible wit and complexity. Every time I read Dickinson, I’m not only struck by her intellectual leaps and risks in poetic form but also left deeply, emotionally moved.

 

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.