By Afnan Alobaidli
It was the end of March 2020. I had just finished reading an American classic novel, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, yet a new addition to the list of books I have read this year. I felt elated now that I had finished a book and was on the look out for another one; a brand new book with the smell of new pages yet to be dog-eared and highlighted. My relationship with books has always been that of adventure and achievement. Adventure because, naturally, each book is a unique journey to explore, and achievement because going through the journey and completing it always gives me a sense of elation and satisfaction.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have had more reading time on my hands because I have no school, no work and only the basic house responsibilities. It was my job to stay at home. For an introvert and a bibliophile, this sounded like a one of a kind opportunity. I saw this as an opportunity to read more books. So I started munching my way through the pages like a proper bookworm. I wanted to increase my sense of achievement. I wanted to come out of the pandemic with as many read books as possible. As I put myself through this frenzied reading streak, a strange feeling began creeping upon me. As I added more time to my reading hours, I was becoming more jittery and frustrated. I was not connecting to the stories as I usually would. And sometimes I found myself skimming paragraphs. This was not a good sign. I knew by then that I was taking my achievement goals too far, and that my relationship with books was changing.
So I endeavored to redefine why I loved books so much, and saw this pandemic as a chance to reflect on my reading habits. I knew that I loved books because they enrich my inner imaginative life. Books could take me anywhere especially while I was living in a situation where I had to stay at home. I needed this diversion, the chance to step from one world to another. It fed my appetite for adventure that I have always sought in stories. In a world that can become dull, repetitive and routine, stories were an antidote to boredom. You never know when your next favorite quote will turn up, what a character will choose on their journey, or where the author will take the story next. If you are reading nonfiction, you can always count on something new to learn. So books quenched my thirst for novelty.
There is a saying in Arabic that goes “the best companion is a book.” Perhaps the author was implying the lack of good friends in his times, but the pandemic has taken away much more than that. It has taken away the people, the gatherings and the connectedness with the outside world, and substituted it with self-imposed solitude. This period in our history will—hopefully—not repeat itself for many years to come. But the companionship of books has become one its most cherished memories. You are never alone. When you become friends with a book, you have conversations with it. Whenever you read, underline, highlight and comment on whatever catches your interest, you are having a conversation with a book. During the pandemic, this habit became a substitute for conversations with people. Now that I saw people less, I could see books more. And all the comments I write on the margins of my books have become a sort of ongoing conversation with printed words on a page. Perhaps you think it’s odd to have a conversation with a book. But really it is simply an imaginative experience in which you are actively engaging with the author on the page and exchanging your ideas with them.
As I reflected on the kind of memories I wanted to take away from my reading experience during the pandemic, I discovered that I wanted more than just a tall stack of finished books on my shelves. What I wanted, above all, was companionship, a good story and a long, enlightening conversation , preferably with a warm cup of chai. I wanted to experience those moments of ‘glory’ John Steinbeck wrote about in one of my favorite passages from East of Eden:
“Sometime a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes, Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and the number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”
In the midst of this pandemic, I have had the rare privilege to be in the companionship of books. They have taught me to take it slow, to relish and reflect and reread my favorite passages because those moments are the little glories we can experience whenever we hold a good book in our hands.
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Afnan Alobaidli is a graduate of English Literature from Saudi Arabia.
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