In “The Decameron,” 10 wealthy Italians, seeking to escape the Black Plague of the 14th century, leave their city for an empty villa in the countryside where, for 10 days, they tell each other stories.
Frieda Toth, the teen services librarian for Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, who is now, like so many others, self-isolating at home, found the stories the perfect diversion during our modern-day pandemic.
“With the plague, you knew right away whether you had it,” she said, pointing out a difference between then and now. “And people in ‘The Decameron’ were wealthy. But they were still bored silly, still having a hard time.”
“The Decameron,” written by Giovanni Boccaccio, includes 100 short tales, so it’s easy to dip in and out of the book, which is what Toth has been doing.
“I’ve been reading it for a month and I’m only on the sixth day,” she said.
“We’re on Day 43,” she added, about the current pandemic regimen.
Being forced to stay at home for such an extended time can inspire you to try new things. Toth’s boss, library Director Kathy Naftaly, has chosen to dive into Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” about an arrogant young man who commits a needless, heinous crime.
“It’s one of those, ‘I ought to get around to reading it’ books. He feels he’s above others and can do whatever the hell he wants. I kind of thought, this might be interesting. Plus it was long, and I felt the duration of home sequestering was going to be long.”
Also, the bleakness of the Russian experience in the 1860s held “a certain attraction” under the current circumstances, she said.
Reading about traumatic periods of the past can provide perspective on current difficulties, said Diana Palmer, the Glens Falls city councilwoman for the Third Ward and a marriage and family therapist.
Reading can be therapeutic in various ways.
“There’s a lot of coping strategies that can be used through reading. For some people, leaning in to stories about this kind of thing is cathartic, it’s almost validating — people have been going through and surviving similar things.
“Reading about pandemics, for others, could increase their anxiety. Some people need to escape, need something else, and reading is great for that.”
Reading can make you feel close and connected to the characters in a book and help relieve feelings of isolation, she said.
She enjoys reading inspirational history books, such as “Team of Rivals” and “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
She likes to see “how we have come through times of crisis in the past,” she said. “It can give you perspective and hope.”
Finding a distraction
Doug Gruse, director of marketing and communications at SUNY Adirondack, said he usually likes light escapist books with a fantastic or supernatural element, but in the current circumstances, he has sought more involving and intense reads.
“Now I want a more intense engagement, because it stops me from thinking,” he said.
He brought up Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation,” the first part of his “Southern Reach Trilogy,” which creates an alternate world in which part of the U.S. has been walled off after a mysterious event. A secret agency launches ill-fated expeditions into the region.
“Maybe not the most comforting thing,” Gruse said.
He also has been reading Stephen King’s “The Outsider,” which he called “the perfect read” for the circumstances — “it’s light enough and intense enough. It pulled my mind away from everything else” — and Pete Hamill’s novel, “Forever,” about a man who lives in Manhattan and is immortal as long as he never leaves the island.
Hamill, formerly a New York City newspaper columnist and editor, has a style that is dense but compelling, Gruse said.
Gruse has been working from home, where he has been busier than ever, as the college has been dealing with upheavals caused by the pandemic, such as switching courses to online platforms. His husband, a tattoo artist, is not allowed to work, which Gruse thinks is a worse fate.
“I’m locked upstairs in our spare bedroom, struggling to get through this huge workload. But I don’t envy him,” Gruse said.
Toth, too, likes to switch among books, and besides “The Decameron” has been reading graphic novels — “She Hulk,” written by Charles Soule, and “Skull Face Bookseller Honda-san,” a series of Japanese comedy manga — along with a nonfiction book on edible wild plants.
“For obvious reasons,” she said, of the plants book. “If we don’t go out a lot, and we have a backyard, we may as well eat the weeds. A lot of the woods are way more nutritious than lettuce — like dandelion greens,” she said.
Preparing for trauma
As the pandemic approached, Doug MacKenzie of Hudson Falls happened to be reading two World War II memoirs — “Helmet for my Pillow” by Robert Leckie and “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” by Eugene Sledge — that gave him a helpful perspective.
“Those two books kind of set me up right before it hit, because of understanding the deprivations and horror that those boys were sent to go live in and endure,” he said. “When they finally came home, they didn’t talk about it, but went ahead and built modern America instead.
“I see people having hissy fits over having to stay home. I think, really? These people would have gone insane if they had to endure the civil liberty restrictions put on citizens in this country during that war,” he said. of World War II.
Making the comparison helps him keep his priorities straight.
“I’m not being asked to sail on a ship around the world and getting dumped into a jungle. I’m not being asked to do that. I’m being asked to stay home and not spread contagion. It just sort of set my mindset,” he said.
Doug’s wife, Susan Ann, works in visitor services at The Hyde Collection Art Museum in Glens Falls and is on partial furlough now (Doug is retired). A Quaker, she likes to read Quaker mythology, along with an eclectic selection of pioneer stories, midwestern novels and Shakespeare.
Right now, she is reading “An Untamed Land” by Lauraine Snelling, a story of 19th century pioneers from Norway who settle in the Dakota Territory.
“My auntie sent it to me from Wisconsin (MacKenzie’s home state). She’s 85, and I order her books on Amazon. Sometimes, she sends one to me,” she said.
She is also reading Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.”
“These days, politics has gotten so weird, with such odd, exaggerated personalities. I pick up Shakespeare, and it’s all in there.”
She likes the humor of Garrison Keillor novels like “Cold Comfort Farm” and has been reading books by Sigurd Olson, a geologist and nature writer who grew up in Wisconsin and lived in northern Minnesota as an adult.
“He wrote all these beautiful stories (such as “The Singing Wilderness,” published in 1956, and “Listening Point,” published in 1958), with beautiful imagery of water and land. He writes prose, but very poetic prose. He helps you develop a relationship with and awareness to nature,” she said.
She has also been browsing in “The Adirondack Reader,” a compilation of writing about the region from the last four centuries, in which she has learned the early British settlers of the Adirondacks “were not very moral people,” she said.
She likes to dip into poetry at times, and the Bible, too, she said.
She and Doug have changed some of their habits, instituting “no-streaming Sundays,” for instance, which they reserve for books and other creative and quiet pursuits, like playing Scrabble and the guitar.
They are not suffering, but the “hardship is watching other people struggle,” Doug said.
“We do what we can. We know a few people who are home ill. By the time this is over, we will all know somebody who has died from this.”
He expects lasting changes to come out of the pandemic.
“My days of shaking hands are over,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the old ways of doing things.”
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at email@example.com and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at @trafficstatic.
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