This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.

Everyone’s talking about bookshop. Errr, now that everyone is almost done talking about American Dirt, the limits of representation, the perils of mis-marketing, and the lost opportunities of seven-figure advances, everyone is talking about Bookshop.

What’s Bookshop?

It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.

The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.

Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.

So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.

As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future. 

But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.

In this respect, the #2020bookchallenge is a hazard and an opportunity.

My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.

The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory. 

The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance. 

It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.

 

If you’re a reader of the MWS newsletter, you already know that I used Independent Bookstore Day to restock my supply of birthday books. You also know that at the very top of the heap is Normal People, Sally Rooney’s follow-up to Conversations with Friends (an emo-elder-YA hybrid), and that it’s for me!

But there are lots of other titles in my stack, and they’re mostly for young readers. My favorites include the endearingly odd Dory in Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, the clever environmentalist Noah in Flush by Carl Hiaasen, the delightfully different Penderwick sisters in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, and the hilariously unlikely nanny in Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt.

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I love giving books because it lets me imaginatively repeat the first-time reading experience with the anticipation inspired by the knowledge of what’s to come—the book is great! When I give Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or Enchanted by Rene Denfeld or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I feel like I’m giving someone a ticket to a fantastic land I’ve just discovered.

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But of course, because it’s a one-way, single-use ticket, I can’t take that journey again. Sure, I can reread the book (and that, too, is a source of great pleasure), but I can’t ever discover an already-visited land. In this way reading is like stepping into Heraclitus’s river: It’s never exactly the same book (because it’s never exactly the same reader) twice.

Giving books, then, is a gift you give yourself. In giving, you get to relive a bit the magic of discovery, and once your recipient has returned from their journey, you get to talk about your discoveries together.