How To Stay Sane (And Save Humanity)

The good news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still alive. The bad news: Marianne Faithfull is hospitalised because of Covid-19. May she get well soon. In the meanwhile, let us concentrate on staying sane on board the train wreck.

Reading books is hard. It’s hard, and boring, if you compare it to watching cat videos or shopping online. There’s almost never an instant gratification – you have to work at it. And by working I mean concentrating.

Reading books is easy, if you compare the activity to almost anything else. No exercise gear or physical effort is required. No-one asks for your credit card details. You can eat while doing it.

It is, per definition, a solitary pasture (although I’m sure these times have teased out new, more social ways of enjoying literature as well). The very purpose of literature is to nurture our brains with ideas and make us think. This is also, not surprisingly, the reason why women were forbidden by law to access education for such a long time and why some religious cults still ban women access to certain texts. Reading is radical. And hard.

At the same time it is one of the easiest, if not the only way, to preserve humanity. It has always been thus: stories have been passed through generations. You put yourself in somebody else’s place, or shoes, and will see things differently, understand somebody else’s point of view better.

Or, as Rebecca Solnit puts it: “Reading is a way of disappearing from where you are – not quite entering the author’s mind but engaging with it so that something arises between your mind and hers. You translate words into your own images, faces, places, light and shade and sound and emotion. A world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own. It’s the reader who brings the book alive.”

Reading for entertainment is good, too (any reading is), and there is a time and place for all the Devil Wears Pradas of the world. As far as life hacks go, though, here’s one: it’s important to read good books. To have a couple of good sentences in your mental reserve for unexpected, or expected, situations.
I’ll give an example of the mother of all prophetic and brilliant sentences in the history of modern literature:

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.” 

It’s from the Handmaid’s Tale which Margaret Atwood wrote in the 80s. “It could never happen here” she was told when the dystopian novel was published in 1985.

-“Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances“, Atwood replied. Fast forward to Hungary in 2020.

I give it to you – few people find reading post-apocalyptic dystopias a soothing pastime these days. Thus, herewith three suggestions to escape the humdrum. They are all very rock’n roll, which I find interesting to read about, because it’s a world so very unlike my own (I have been a civil servant for nearly two decades, nothing is further from rock’n roll I can tell you that much) and told by elderly women, who are generally speaking the only trustworthy sources for any useful wisdom.

You know how much I love Joan Didion’s writing, so obviously I am going to recommend her diary South and West , which was published in 2017. If you absolutely cannot be arsed to read her, or want to do a bit of background studying before immersing yourself on her works, there’s still the excellent documentary The Center Will Not Hold about her life on Netflix. Watch it, but then read her books as well.

Marianne Faithfull’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections is a gritty memoir by the wildest child of the 60s and 70s British art, music and entertainment scene. Her version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” will forever be the only one. Given the trauma, drama and illnesses she’s already sustained, she is likely to beat the virus as well. Here’s hoping.

Another septuagenarian artist who (unfortunately) falls into the corona-high risk group is Patti Smith whose Just Kids is beautiful, if only because you can almost pretend to be in New York while reading it. And frankly, that’s as good as it’s going to get for the foreseeable future, so take note of the blurb on the book’s cover “it serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions”. This book will be the closest you’ll get to the city for a long, long time.

As a final point, I am glad that I haven’t made it as an influencer – I would not be much good at it, given that my influence on myself tends to veer to the destructive. But these influencer kids have it hard, I have to admit it. One self-appointed It-Girl yesterday posted on instagram an honest account that she hasn’t read a single book for years, but was planning to start catching up now and was asking for tips.

Six hours later she posted a peculiar video, shot from an extremely close distance, depicting her glancing at the camera with half-closed eyes and dreamily playing with her hair. This silent film (which has been watched over 4000 times since) was accompanied with a description “feeling“, followed by an emoticon whose meaning I’m yet to decipher.
As I said.
Reading. Not easy.

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