Quarantine Is Lit:

Time Enough at Last

By Courtney Preiss
Illustration by Tiffany Alfonseca

The last trip I made before the world shut down was to buy books from an independent bookstore I frequent. This was an outing fueled by both my panic and my delusion. Panic, as the grim portrait of Italy’s coronavirus-induced lockdown and the astronomical death toll was about to hit the United States. Delusion, because I was not about to save a bookstore by merely purchasing a hardback copy of Jenny Offill’s latest.

I found out shortly upon returning to my home that my sister and my father—gearing up for quarantining in their respective abodes on the Upper East Side and in suburban New Jersey, respectively—had anticipated the shutdown with similar impulses and purchases. We shared a common pop-culture vision: An early episode of The Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith plays a bookworm who survives a nuclear holocaust, but just as he’s settling in to tear through a stack of classics uninterrupted, he cracks his reading glasses.

The looming prospect of tragedy on a global scale mixed with the thought of being sequestered at home surrounded by my books made that The Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last,” an analog that felt all too eerie and apt. Although the reality is that I am not able to consume all the books I desire in my seemingly infinite bedside queue (making the metaphor even more accurate—with unprecedented professional demands and periods of abject terror serving as my own personal broken spectacles of sorts), I maintain an optimistic and somewhat romantic hope for the book industry in the current climate.

I believe this moment marks a silver lining amidst grave strife: The reignition of the American love affair with literature.

Despite the impossibility of courting foot traffic, independent bookstores across the country have offered shipping, curbside pickup, and delivery options to their communities. Despite the uncertainty in sales, books remain an essential companion and distraction in this era of the Great Indoors where readers of all ages need a cure for what ails them—whether it be boredom, anxiety, or somewhere in between. I believe this moment marks a silver lining amidst grave strife: The reignition of the American love affair with literature. Here are some of the industry’s most heartening endeavors and bright spots so far:

Penguin Random House’s Read to Sleep Campaign: Kicked off before the official start of the pandemic, but ramped up just as we were entering the high-anxiety throes of the unknown, PRH offers soothing reminders about the benefits of curling up with a book before bed, rather than turning to our overused devices. We are collectively experiencing a sharp increase in screen time exposure rate during isolation—whether it’s due to working remotely, being glued to news alerts on our phones, or the escape hatch of Netflix. #readtosleep promotes sleep hygiene, cognitive health, and stress reduction. The campaign encourages us to hold space for a pastime edged out by our busy lifestyles and it gives our eyes the rest they desperately need. (FWIW, I’m still waiting for my blue light blocker glasses to arrive.)

Sewanee Review’s Corona Correspondences: Adam Ross, the literary magazine’s editor, launched the correspondence series within the first week of social distancing measures—courting some of the biggest names in contemporary publishing to write in and document the pandemic in real-time as it unfolds. The archive boasts writers like Lorrie Moore and figures like the National Book Foundation’s Lisa Lucas, granting readers intimate access to the most bookish among us. Great literary minds—they fret just like us!

Sugar Calling: Having been bereft since Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugars advice podcast ended at the peak of my Saturn Return, this moment of revival with her new New York Times-sanctioned podcast Sugar Calling has been among the small joys I’ve experienced since being in Quarantine. On the new show, Strayed conducts (remote) conversations with legendary writers over the age of sixty—like Amy Tan and George Saunders—exploring how they’re spending their time in isolation, how their communities have been affected, and how they’ve alchemized adversity throughout the course of their lives and turned it into memorable literature.

Bookshop dot org vs. Amazon: The latest iteration of the online literary retail David and Goliath narrative, cast just in time for a pandemic. Bookshop.org launched about a month before American business-as-usual grinded to a halt, introducing a model aimed at benefiting independent bookstores and literary affiliates across the country. Sales through the website go toward a local bookstore of the consumer’s choosing or toward an earnings pool that is evenly divided and sent to indies twice a year. This comes during a time when small booksellers need even more help than usual and Amazon is scaling operations to focus on shipping essential products, delaying shipments on book orders out a month or more in some (many) cases.

Welcome to Adaptation Nation: Television is not the natural enemy to literature. Adaptations of popular literary titles are ushering in a new season, albeit, one destined to be spent indoors. Mainstays of the bestseller list in recent years are coming to life in new ways for bigger audiences, like Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which made its debut on Hulu just as we started hunkering down. The hotly anticipated debut of Normal People (also on Hulu) marks the first foray onto the small screen for the darling of the literati, Sally Rooney—thrilling her legions of prose-hungry fans across the globe. ︎