By Eric L.
If you’re reading this, you probably like books. And you may, like me, find and pick stories to read that you can relate to irrespective of time and place. That said, thanks to the fantastic members of my HCLS book discussion group (Read. Think. Talk. First Monday of the month at 7 pm) for suggesting Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (also an ebook, eAudiobook, and an audiobook on CD) and The Plague by Albert Camus (also an eAudiobook). We discussed the former title as a group and it made for a good conversation.
I tend to want to know about the human experience, although some things are just too sad right now. To be sure, both of these books are sad, but I’ve definitely read more melancholy stories. What’s more, I’d contend these reads put the global pandemic in perspective. So, if you feel as though you’re up to it, I recommend these titles (I can completely understand if you’d prefer not to read about plagues and pandemic.).
Station Eleven was a good book, a suspenseful page turner with many likeable characters and some interesting commentary on the modern world and celebrity. It is scheduled to be an HBO miniseries, but unfortunately the filming was stopped due to the pandemic. Emily St John Mandel’s latest book (The Glass Hotel) made President Obama’s Best of 2020 list.
A nonlinear story, the book recounts a much deadlier and contagious flu from the outbreak to the post-apocalyptic world that remains after much of the population and civilization are wiped out. The story revolves around an aging actor and his tangential relationships. The characters include his two ex-wives (one of whom is a shipping executive/comic book artist and writer), a self-declared prophet, his business consultant best friend, a paramedic, a child actor, and a Shakespearean acting troupe and symphony traveling around the Great Lakes region of North America. The individual daily experiences told from the perspectives of these characters, pre, during, and post the pandemic, are compelling. Moreover, their individual stories intersect in creative ways.
As mentioned before, I will concede that Station Eleven has some disturbing parts. For me, and probably for most American readers existing in relative comfort, the transition from the modern world to a more primitive existence is frightening. In some ways the inability of society to stop the unraveling seems improbable, but not impossible. I do think a cursory analysis of what holds society together can be a bit horrifying.
After completing Station Eleven, I really wanted to read The Plague by Albert Camus. Camus is known as a philosopher of sorts, although he denied being an “existentialist,” he is perhaps an “absurdist.” Put simply, Camus’ books examine the random aspects of human existence but not in as overly academic way. Instead, I’d contend he uses fiction to spin a thoughtful tale. I’ve read The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, and I recommend both, but The Plague is particularly apropos right now.
The Plague describes the beginning of an outbreak of a plague in a small coastal town that is too busy to be bothered with such things. The story gets much deeper into the actual outbreak and day-to-day management of the plague from the perspective of a narrator whose identity is only revealed in the end (I found this interesting).
The reactions of the characters to the plague vary and are indicative of human feelings throughout time. For example, one character is determined to break the law and escape the quarantined town to be with a loved one. Camus adroitly addresses the feelings we all share to some extent, immortality, and that need to believe that it won’t happen here, happen to me, etc. These sentiments shape our collective response to situations like a pandemic. This is in no way an indictment, but rather a recognition of human nature. I certainly recalled my similar reaction to other epidemics, and I assumed the Coronavirus would unfold for me in a similar way. That is, abstract, contained, and impacting other people, but not my daily life.
Camus’ idea is that terrible things, such as plagues, are inevitable. Moreover, we are all susceptible to some random demise. My favorite character in Station Eleven, Clark, recognizes this fact and angrily points it out to religious zealots who believe they’re in some way chosen because they survived. I don’t think it’s healthy for us to ruminate about the fact we could cease to exist at any minute. (It is odd that Albert Camus met what he would’ve described as an “absurd” end in a car crash at age 46.) Perhaps living through these things, will enable us to remember and collectively take it more seriously, sooner. Some contend that Camus’ recognition of the fragility of humans and society is to engender a kinder world.
So as not to end this post on a very depressing note, I believe both authors are optimistic about humanity. Camus and Mandel both highlight the joy that comes from being with each other and the many pleasures of life. They describe the simple pleasures of swimming, dancing, art, friendship, dogs (I certainly love all these things). These are the things that keep the characters from giving up despite grave circumstances. Conversely, both authors astutely highlight the things that perhaps we deem important, but really are not.
Here’s hoping I’m reading and writing about books concerning rainbows next year!
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.