Reading during the Pandemic

When we can’t visit former colleagues, reading their musings can substitute. And there are no dishes to wash after.

Shannon Purves-Smith:

After going through the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings to gain some insight into the musical version of it by the Dutch wind-symphony composer, Johan de Meij, a work that I adore, I took on the 1240+ pages of an English translation of Hugo’s Les Misérables.

The first time I read it, the translation was by someone in the 19th century, and I loved it. Then I had to read it twice in French at wlu in a course on the French novel, twice so I could say something about it on an exam other than, “Ce livre est très long.” But a British translator of this new edition had renewed some of the “digressions,” which I really enjoyed.

Then I started reading the 84 hand-written letters (all but one single-spaced, typed, 9-page letter) that I wrote during my time with my husband (now deceased) when we played in the Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa during 1968 and 1970 in the state of Veracruz. Reading your own thoughts 52 years after you wrote them is quite an emotional challenge. Many things I remembered, quite a few I didn’t. But there were many that caused tears of contentment. And there were stories of hilarious gaffes, off and on stage, such as in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, the Eroica, near the end when the French horns play three heroic chords (Bahm, Bahm, Bahm!), accompanied by thunderous blows on the tympani that broke the sticks off both of them, and sent them sailing across the back of the stage, right to the cadence of the end of the piece.

My mother saved all these gems. I can’t imagine a sweeter legacy than these letters meant for my family and Michael’s, now meant for me, and I am so blessed to relive the magic realism of our two years in that place and time. Mexico was, for both of us, the most adventurous experience.

Now I am reading Shakespeare’s Richard III. Some Stratford Festival actors claim that Richard was the avatar for a politician who now seems to follow the strategies to the letter. I want to know if that’s true!

Stay well!

Steve Izma:

Writing programs for a number of publishing database projects has taken up a lot of my time during the pandemic. But the screen time is exhausting, so I’ve tried to avoid constant exposure by taking breaks to read good old print on paper. This certainly helps for winding down at night.

As a result, I’ve read more books over the last year than likely at any time in my life, which is pretty significant for someone who’s supposed to be retired from publishing.

On top of actual books, I read the Waterloo Region Record every morning—although their obsession with Covid19 news prompts me to skip what seems like a repeating cycle of morbid commentary.

I also read magazines, especially The London Review of Books (not surprising after a career of publishing mostly on social issues). In terms of periodicals, I find myself frequently reading Macleans, largely out of surprise that it’s improved so much over the last few years. Nonetheless, my favourite parts of the magazine for a long time have been Brian Bethune’s book reviews. Am I stuck in a pattern?

If so, it’s not over yet: I still read a pile of manuscripts about five times a year in preparation for editorial committee meetings at Between the Lines, the Toronto publishing co-op I helped start nearly 45 years ago.

But I need to remark on two very impressive books I’ve read in the last month. Both scan issues going back around forty years, yet they still sound alarm bells relevant to current events.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority, and the Mess of Life consists of thoughtful examinations of gender-related crimes (all U.S.-based) of the last few decades. JoAnn Wypijewski, a philosopher-investigative-journalist who has written for magazines such as The Nation and Harper’s, spent considerable time at the scene of crimes and consistently uncovered elements of stories that undermined the sensationalist narratives of the mainstream press.

In this book she examines, for example, the backgrounds of the two young men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepherd; the circumstances of how Nushawn Williams was convicted of infecting numerous sexual partners with HIV; some of the stories behind one of the priests convicted of sexual abuse in Boston; the behind-the-scenes lives of the Americans in the Abu Ghraib photographs; and, of course, the question of power dynamics in the sexual assaults by heavyweights in the American media industry.

Throughout these and other explorations she broadens the concept of criminal injury until we must go beyond the polarization of perpetrator and victim to grapple with how damage to one (such as childhood abuse) leads to damage to others. Through this she intelligently shifts the focus from the pure evil of the guilty to the systemic, usually hidden, roots of violence.

Although the ideas she expresses in these articles are provocative and forward-looking, they are not theoretical, for both her use of language and her investigations are of the highest quality of journalism: diverse examples, many interviews, and a way of writing that is at the same time both elegant and easily grasped.

In the tradition of writers who work hard to untangle hypocrisies, these essays give us a much better basis for finding effective solutions than simple lock-em-up.

Hilary and Steven Rose have been writing about science since the 1950s and were colleagues of Stephen Jay Gould, so much of their approach to topics named in their book Genes, Cells, and Brains covers not merely discoveries in these areas but also and especially their political and economic backgrounds. What kind of research gets funded and who benefits?

They follow, in particular, the ups and downs of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and how the direction of research has been mostly influenced by the needs of Big Pharma to come up with profitable drugs. The HGP turned out to be a big disappointment in this respect. The Roses show how increasingly intensive research into human genes has shown cellular systems so complex that attempts to determine disease from isolating particular genes has largely proven a dead end. They contrast the billions of dollars spent on research for supposedly curative drugs to the paltry sums involved in health education and disease prevention.

Although the book was written about eight years ago, it paints a picture of the relationship between governments and Big Pharma (with universities usually right smack in the middle) that should cause us to look further into the current-day development and production of drugs and vaccines. “Haste makes waste” is not necessarily just a folk maxim.