As San Antonians, along with other folks around the world, adjust to increasingly strict social distancing measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, reading – an activity often thought of as too time-consuming to fit in a busy schedule – suddenly seems back on the table.
With its noted benefits for mental and physical health, reading is a good idea at any time, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty.
If you’re looking to spend more time reading in the coming weeks, it might be hard to know where to start. We asked several local authors, poets, and educators for their recommendations in these categories: plague/quarantine material (for the intrepid), other fiction and fantasy (for those seeking escape), social justice (for those thinking about systemic change), and spiritual/self-help (for those seeking inspiration).
Do you have your own reading recommendations? Tell us in the comments!
Given the circumstances, it might seem harrowing to read literature set in or reflecting on times of plague and quarantine, real or fictional. Eddie Vega, a poet and educator whose first book of poems, Chicharra Chorus, was released last year by FlowerSong Press, wondered, “Seriously, what kind of masochistic individual would read this right now?”
Nevertheless, some might find it helpful to read real or fictional expressions of plague and pandemic experience to see how individuals and characters process, cope, and overcome.
Steven G. Kellman, literary critic and University of Texas at San Antonio professor of comparative literature, has written extensively about Albert Camus’ The Plague, which “portrays a wide range of reactions to an epidemic that forces the entire Algerian city of Oran into quarantine.”
“As in our own time,” Kellman said, “the imminence of mass death inspires acts of sacrificial altruism as well as selfish, rank opportunism.”
Kellman praised the work for “the bracing honesty of its confrontation with the limits of a human life.”
Near the end of the novel, for instance, “the narrator reminds us that relief from pestilence is always only temporary, that the virus remains lurking, ready to attack again,” Kellman said.
Kellman also recommended Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, set outside Florence during the plague that ravaged the city in the 14th century, as well as Samuel Pepys’s Diary, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
Octavio Quintanilla, the most recent poet laureate of San Antonio and a professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, also recommended The Plague as entertaining and philosophically stimulating.
Quintanilla’s other recommendations were Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies, set against the backdrop of an epidemic transmitted by mosquitoes, and José Saramago’s Blindness, in which a quarantine is ordered amid a mysterious, blinding disease.
“Saramago depicts how hard it is to keep civility intact in the face of dire circumstances,” he said.
Laurie Ann Guerrero, former poet laureate of both San Antonio and Texas, recommended Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, a collection of essays she describes as “so revealing and immediate, it shocks you into your own beauty.”
The book doesn’t focus on pandemics, but Guerrero said it’s “the perfect thing right now to counter our collective fear of ourselves,” because of the way it “explores humanity’s simplest and most valuable gifts: touch, coffee, hummingbirds, odd colloquialisms, planes, lovers, gardens.”
Kathryn Vomero Santos, a Shakespeare scholar and assistant professor of English at Trinity University, offered up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a work set in the aftermath of a pandemic that kills much of the world’s population.
Santos looks to this work as a powerful argument for the value of art and literature in dark times. The book “weaves together several interrelated plots, one of which involves the Traveling Symphony who roams around performing Shakespeare’s plays because ‘survival is insufficient.’”
“This motto,” she said, “quoted from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, becomes a refrain throughout the novel and a powerful reminder that storytelling and art are fundamental to our shared humanity.”
Santos considers this book vital because it exploits the art and creativity of the past to pose urgent questions about the future:
“What will remain when this is over? Will the social structures that we currently inhabit become even more unequal and inflexible or will they be reformed? What can we do to change them? How might literature and the performing arts help us to do that?”
One of reading’s most fundamental draws has always been its capacity to provide escape from the conditions of present reality.
Author and poet Natalia Treviño, whose most recent collection of poetry, Virgin X, was published in 2018 by Finishing Line Press, said Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is a powerful book for these times.
A war book that strikes a surreal tone, Going After Cacciato, according to Treviño, offers a relevant meditation on the “tension between our desire to fulfill obligation and our desire for independence.”
She also recommended Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, which she views as “hot, full of magical, transforming vapors, like water has to be to make a silky, hot chocolate escape.”
Bárbara Renaud González, author of Las Nalgas de JLo/JLo’s Booty: The Best & Most Notorious Calumnas & Other Writings by the First Chicana Columnist in Texas 1995-2005, recommended Geraldine Brooks’ The Year of Wonders as a novel “about how the darkest hours can transform us in miraculous ways.”
Vega offered up Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, as a “thrilling, noirish, modern Gothic novel, that starts with a bookstore owner in Barcelona introducing his son to a secret library and unravels into a story about the boy investigating the life and death of an obscure writer.”
Guerrero praised Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, which she is reading with her family, for being “magic – poetic, lyrical, fantastical, and so very tender.”
It’s “a very good escape about a man who tells tall tales and the people who love him,” she said, noting that, for her, it also offers a way to remember her own grandfather.
With a global pandemic almost necessarily comes the consideration of our interconnectedness, of the social and governmental systems that support (or fail) us and of the particular values that shape our individual and collective lives.
Wendy Barker, a literary critic, poet and creative writing professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, recommended Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, two books that, while not exactly social justice focused, provide occasion to consider personal and societal relationships to nature and the environment.
“And if we ever needed reminders of our connectedness,” she said “it’s now.”
Trevino heaped high praise on Gloria Anzaldua’s seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera.
“There is not a more powerful book to help a reader understand the displacement experienced by Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, or others who live in ‘nepantla,’ a word that means the place that exists between two lands along a border,” she said. “Mexican Americans in San Antonio need this book.”
Vega recommended Pablo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, another work that has become a part of the social justice canon over the years. In his estimation, “change starts with education and this book is about teaching in a manner that is totally relevant to the students, so that they can effect change.”
Communion, by bell hooks, is another title straight from Guerrero’s current reading list. She lauded the influential feminist writer’s “thorough approach to and breakdown of structures” as a “practice in mindfulness.”
“Hers is a voice that is unquestionably feminist and unquestionably guided by love and compassion,” Guerrero said.
Santos recommended Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions and Lost Children Archive from 2019 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Valeria Luiselli.
Both works, Santos feels, ask us to bear witness to the experience of refugees and “to the human atrocities being committed by the U.S. government today.”
Santos likes Luiselli’s activist writing for its potential “to encourage readers to consider how we might counteract the ways that this pandemic will disproportionately affect undocumented people and those who are currently held in detention by ICE.”
Few can live through a massive crisis without craving some sort of deeper meaning, or at least peace. Recommendations in this category aim to serve just that purpose.
In the realm of spiritual healing, Barker looks to poetry. While she recommended The Power of Now, the new age spirituality text by Eckhart Tolle, she also offered a healthy helping of her current and all-time favorite poets: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Patricia Smith, Kevin Prufer, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Pablo Neruda.
For “those interested in inner peace, balance, reflection, compassion, and God in a way that does not conflict with their own religious views,” Trevino recommended The Tao of Inner Peace by Diane Dreher.
According to Trevino, this text elucidates the concepts behind the ancient Chinese school of thought called Taoism in a way that “observes the wholeness in the paradox of human life as we are controlled by unlimited desire in a limited world.”
She sees this book, this plumbing of paradox, as especially timely.
“We are together in isolation. We are relieved to have science help us understand COVID-19, yet we know nothing,” she said. “We live in paradoxical times.”
Renaud González recommended Anatomy of the Spirit, Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can Defy Gravity, and Healing Beyond The Bounds of Reason, all by Caroline Myss. González said these books are all “about finding the power within us to love ourselves deeply, find our courage, become whole, take risks, and live spiritually first, not materially.”
“Toilet paper won’t save us,” she said, “but these books have saved me, enriched me, during very difficult times.”
Vega said local poet Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros’ Becoming Cozotzotl, which “explores the intersections of an indigenous and Christian upbringing,” seems especially impactful at the moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Fear is, according to Guerrero, “a practice in mindfulness, deliberateness, and being present.”
“With each page,” she said, “one’s perspective can change, fear can be shifted, love can be attained. It’s so simple, it’s mind-blowing. It’s old, old wisdom; I’m grateful for it.”