The apocalypse of the past two years was marked in my life, not just by the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the subjects of the books I read. I began reading more consistently during this time and found myself deep in a genre of existential stories that, whether or not I realized it at the time, added still more apocalyptic material to my darkening view of the world. After Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the injustice of war was stamped into my brain on top of the rising COVID-19 cases. After Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” it was sickness and sadness and the fact that the human condition had begun to appear fractured. These and other novels left me unsettled by the passage of time for longer than I’d care to admit. I loved books like these, anxious and pessimistic as they made me. They altered my thinking. I felt changed by the authors’ use of language, which was powerful and mesmerizing. They were beautifully written, and they meant something. There was no question for me that they were worth my time.
Yet as the pandemic dragged on in the real world, and the insurmountable worldly problems and existentialism piled up in the fiction I consumed, I began to long for an escape. I loved these books, but I needed a break from them. I wanted to be happy while reading, not because I liked the writing or because of Vonnegut’s dry, satirical humor, but because the stories themselves were happy. I wanted a book that was cozy and exciting. I wanted fluff. I wanted romance. I wanted characters to root for who got what they wanted in clear-cut ways that I didn’t need to struggle to wrap my mind around.
So, I set out to find a cute, fluffy romance novel. It couldn’t be too hard, I thought. Not a big romance reader myself, I turned to the BookTubers I watched, and they almost unanimously recommended Talia Hibbert’s “Get a Life, Chloe Brown.” I checked it out from the library with perhaps unattainably high hopes.
I liked “Chloe Brown” well enough, but it wasn’t everything I had dreamed it would be. I tried to be invested in the story, to care whether the characters ended up together, but the reality was that I wasn’t. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story didn’t matter. I doubted it would deeply affect me in any way. I didn’t want this to be true. I certainly didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t enjoy romance novels because they weren’t heavy and dense and “serious.” I desperately wanted to care about Chloe and her love interest, Red. I tried to fend off my ambivalence to the story, but in the end, it was impossible. I looked for other romance novels, but none appealed to me much more. I followed this failure with a string of thrillers — a genre I once loved — but the ones I chose, highly recommended as they were, felt generic; they felt like nothing special and I stopped reading most after a few chapters. I didn’t want to read another heavy book yet. I still wanted something fun, but for one reason or another, I didn’t enjoy the books I thought would fit this description.
While deciding to write this for The Michigan Daily, I realized that I needed to think of a book that had saved me. A book that had felt both meaningful and worthwhile and been truly energizing to read — fun in a non-depressing way. I knew that I must have read such a book during this time, and finding it was the logical conclusion to this piece. Racking my brain, thinking of every piece of fiction I read in the last two years, I could not find anything that fit the bill.
The only recent read I could think of that felt both valuable and distinctly exciting — a book that made me think and brought me joy, both from writing style and content — was one I read over Winter Break. The book was “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution,” a book of TV criticism by Emily Nussbaum. This seemed like the wrong answer to my “what book could do both?” question. It was nonfiction and discussed real-world happenings, and not all of them were lighthearted. Besides calling David Chase a sadist and making me laugh out loud in my living room, Nussbaum’s essays cover topics from the Trump election to sexism in the media world. This book was not “fluffy” or “cute,” like the book I thought I wanted. Looking back, at first I didn’t know why it didn’t make me sad. It was partly the content, I think. Finding escape in a book of art criticism is a bit meta. It’s escaping into media about other media, discussing the art that comments on the real world rather than directly touching reality. I was also thrown off by the realization that the most escape I had found was in a book of nonfiction. Wasn’t fiction supposed to provide the escape from reality?
But this wasn’t the only time this had happened. Another book resurfaced in my memory: “Pity the Reader,” Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell’s writing advice book. A book of advice of any kind sounds like the opposite of an escape, but this book brought me such joy. Vonnegut’s advice is layered with McConnell’s own, along with her commentary on his thoughts. Reading it was like reading a conversation between the two writers that I was almost a part of.
This feeling of conversation was the common thread, present also in “I Like to Watch.” Each essay is prefaced by a paragraph in which Nussbaum puts the essay into perspective and comments on it. Short as these are, it brought her and the essays into the present and brought the reader into conversation with her. I had been trying to find a connection in characters for so long and, most of the time, was failing. I don’t know exactly why I wasn’t clicking with characters, but whatever connection I was missing from fictional entities, I found in the authors of these nonfiction books.
With nonfiction as my pandemic genre of choice, maybe escape was not what I wanted at all. The books that should have provided it did not, and not because they weren’t good or because the characters weren’t well developed, but because, in my current state of mind, I was resistant to the very escape that I thought I desired. I was disturbed by the events of reality and their portrayals in the books I read, but I didn’t want to ignore reality. It mattered too much, and it was where I felt value.
It was not escape that I wanted, but connection. I once heard in a high school history class that previous “apocalypses” like the Great Depression led to a preference for utopian fiction. But besides the pandemic itself, the horror of our current apocalypse is that it pushes us apart. Escaping into an alternate reality did not provide comfort from this. I wanted reality — the reality from before this began, a reality with other, real humans. The closest I could get to this with literature were the authors of nonfiction who put their hearts, voices and humanity into their words.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.