As Americans self-isolate to help halt the spread of the coronavirus, an emeritus English professor from Illinois State University has a few book suggestions to accompany the quarantine.
Robert McLaughlin dug through his book collection to come up with a few ideas that fit the mood of the moment. As we hunker down amidst viral strife, he offered comfort and solidarity in books that reflect our predicament.
“It shows that people have been through this before,” said McLaughlin. “And how they dealt with it successfully, and how they dealt with it maybe unsuccessfully. Some of them offer an escape, looking at the virus or the plague in a different way, maybe a little irreverently.”
McLaughlin’s first suggestion is “Arrowsmith.” The 1925 novel from Sinclair Lewis won the author the Pulitzer Prize. “Arrowsmith” concerns the young doctor, Martin Arrowsmith, and his efforts to come up with a serum for an epidemic of the bubonic plague in the West Indies. Arrowsmith is thrust into a moral dilemma regarding his possibly cure.
“Is it really OK to give some people the real medicine, but then keep a control group where he’s giving them a placebo? This ends up being a conflict that he has to wrestle with, and his decision ends up being the climax of the novel," he said.
McLaughlin’s next pick doesn’t directly address a plague or virus, but instead looks deep into the heart of humankind while taking the reader on a wild romp populated with spies and a stalwart hero who keeps a stiff upper lip. It’s “The Power-House,” better known as “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The author is John Buchan.
“Buchan was quite a prominent British politician in the first part of the 20th century. As a sideline, he wrote thrillers, international espionage thrillers. I have yet to read one of his books that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. They’re very, very good reads.”
“The Thirty-Nine Steps” is his best remembered work because it was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock.
“Like a lot of his books, it deals with a plot. A bunch of anarchists are trying to throw Europe into war. This takes place just on the eve of World War I. There’s a British man who inadvertently gets caught up in the plot and single-handedly has to try and save civilization.”
“In all of his works, Buchan is always stressing the thin line between civilization and barbarism. A character in novel says, ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.’ And Buchan believed that it would be so easy to toss the entire civilization out the window and have chaos replace it.”
“I was thinking of that the other day when I was in the grocery store and saw the empty shelves where the toilet paper ought to be. People can quickly throw things to the wind.”
Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Remember that from recess on the playground? Well, the old rhyme is rumored to have originated in the Great Plague that swept through England in the 1660s. Most folklorists dismiss that theory, but the rumor still clings to the dark-around-the-edges rhyme, which made it perfect for Mary Caponegro, the author of “All Fall Down."
Caponegro is a contemporary short story writer, explained McLaughlin, and her latest collection takes its title from “Ring Around the Rosy.”
“It sets the tone for the stories which pretty much all have to do with entropic movements, things running down – people, institutions, losing their energy and disintegrating. It’s a little bit of a grim book in many ways, but I think it speaks to the time.”
McLaughlin also recommends a classic from Edgar Allan Poe: “The Masque of the Red Death.”
“Another grim one,” McLaughlin admitted. “One of his most famous stories, from 1842. In it he’s imagining a plague that he calls The Red Death. Prince Prospero has invited 1,000 of his wealthy friends, I guess his version of the One Percent, into an abbey where they can weld the door shut to keep all the common people out and save themselves from the plague. They have lots of parties and dances and things to entertain themselves while this is going on, but it doesn’t really work out very well for them in the end.”
“This is an example of social distancing that doesn’t quite work.”
On the lighter side, McLaughlin also selected a work from Ishmael Reed entitled “Mumbo Jumbo.” Set during the Harlem Renaissance, the book depicts a virus most people wouldn’t mind catching, said McLaughlin.
“A plague called Jes Grew has broken out across the country. Once infected, victims can’t stop dancing and singing, and are just having a great time partying. The plague is kind of a hero in the book.”
“And, of course the powers that be can’t have this. People aren’t going to their jobs, they’re not disciplined, it’s hurting the economy. Much of the conflict of the books is about trying to bring the plague to heel, while other people in the novel are trying to help it find what it needs to become a kind of permanent state of affairs. It’s a very funny book, it’s very smart. A great, great novel.”
And then there’s baseball. Or rather, there isn’t. McLaughlin has a suggestion for those fans who are missing the Cardinals and the Cubs. It’s Robert Coover’s “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.”
Not enough real baseball in your life? Then make up your own! Before Fantasy Football, there was this book.
“It’s about a man who makes up a board game about baseball. A roll of the dice determines what happens in the game. He’s become so obsessed with the game that he’s created a whole history for the league, and all the generations of baseball players, he knows all their biographies.”
“The lives for the people he’s made up for this game are more real to him than the real life he lives in. As the novel goes on, the dividing line between the fictional game and his real life ends up getting more and more and more blurred.”
It’s very interesting in terms of issues of what constitutes reality, what constitutes fiction. But also, it’s a lot of fun in terms of baseball.”
And as our reality begins to resemble fiction, fun could take on a deeper importance, as self-isolation could possibly go into extra innings.
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