How one exhausting year has planted me back in America
and in the necessary company of English literature.
The hardest thing about living in China was the lack of English language bookstores. Other than that, it was electric. There was only one place I knew of, “The Bookworm,” with famous steps up to the attic that were painted to look like the spines of books. By the time I moved to Beijing, in August 2019, what had been considered the “old quarter,” somewhere where ex-pats pilgrimaged for that old “Beijing-style grit,” had sprouted with shiny concrete skyscrapers plated with glass and towering financial centers peppered with coffee shops and retail chains. Old gathering places like The Bookworm had the feel of paper newspapers or the wall-mounted telephone: we knew they were on their way out, whether or not our sympathies or our ambivalence went with them. And, sure enough, not just three days after I purchased my year-long membership, The Bookworm announced that they were closing their doors. Death by imperial gentrification.
When The Bookworm closed, it was like the last radio-wave reaching into the desert was cut and I was left floating in a strangely un-literary world. Of course, there were books on every corner, ideas and commands and questions constantly being thrown around me but as I didn’t speak Mandarin, I disappeared into a kind of functional illiteracy. Imagine, a world with no ambient advertisements, no newspaper headlines, just noise, white noise. As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, this was particularly hard for me. The few spare titles I had been able to fit in my suitcase has already been read, and reread, and even ebooks were harder to get as I had not yet learned how to navigate the great firewall of China.
So, a lifelong compulsive reader had to immerse herself in other experiences and engage in a truly shocking new novelty: life without books. For a clumsy introvert who has always found her power in reclusiveness and reading, there was a thrilling kind of power to be had in this new reality. As a blind person must tune her four other senses to superhuman levels, so too were my other faculties intensified. I tasted food with a different clarity, I socialized with a new veracity, I felt that all the experiences of the world were opened to me and I ripped through them with a compulsive greed I had always directed to reading. I felt great. Powerful. Strong. A woman in the world with nothing but options. Who could stop me?
After just 5 months of my Chinese experiment, on a 10-day vacation to Vermont to visit my parents, a new virus broke out in Wuhan, and over the course of 10 days it became very clear that not only was I not going to be able to make it back to my apartment and running hero’s narrative in China, but that I was stuck, indefinitely in the middle of the woods, hiding in my mother’s sewing room, with no car, no commerce, and very limited company.
That was 10 months ago, and in those 10 months I have read 35 books, from the relative discomfort of my childhood rocking chair, in the same borrowed pair of my 15-year-old brother’s outgrown sweatpants, waiting for something, anything to happen. I feel as though I have not lived in the real world this year, the world of sensory experience and possibility that I innocently believed I had stumbled into just one year ago. Instead, thoroughly humbled by the absolute volatility of unmitigated disaster, I have lived exclusively from the online orders of our local bookstore and the lavish excess of my family’s household books.
The following highlights are not just books I read, but they are books that I lived. Anyone who has spent this pandemic reading, same as I, will understand.
1. Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright
I start with this book because this has been the most tactfully useful book for me in dealing with the circumstance of immobility. This book not only provides interesting psychological and scientific backing for the effectiveness of meditation, it is in its own way, a meditative realignment. It gave me a chance to reflect on some practical implications of Buddhism and forced me to accept that even though I think of myself as someone who mediates, that is a delusion, because I don’t actually meditate, ever. What better time to contemplate nothingness when all of the everythingness that one is used to has been efficiently wiped out of existence?
2. Writers and Lovers, by Lily King
Writers and Lovers gave me a chance to live through the laughably outdated-feeling problems of a semi-privileged woman struggling to make it as an artist and juggle two relationships at once. During a time when there were no physical romantic prospects within 100 miles of me, it felt paradoxically appropriate to put on the hat of a much more sexually and artistically active woman. I spent the month of July, barefoot and bare-bottomed in a stream in the Vermont woods, doing nothing but relishing in a fictional character’s very long list of somethings.
3. Big Cabin, by Ron Padgette
This book of poetry was literally written in a cabin in Vermont by a writer who, like me, was playing with the ridiculousness that arises out of months of ill-advised indulgence in stream-of-consciousness transcription. This playful and slightly delusional feeling collection, I think, is summed up perfectly by the writer himself who says in it: “take your fun where you can find it.” There is a ridiculousness to this collection which transformed before me into a kind of hyper-realism as what was once ridiculous became normal what once had been normal began to feel ridiculous.
4. When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams
This sweepingly lyrical book swallowed me whole for about two days. Something about the lyricism and the braided nature of the structure made this book impossible to put down. When you (as you probably have) have watched all the TV shows you like to watch, and baked more than you can eat, it is good to have a book that will take you away for at least a full day, so that for a few long hours, you don’t have time to feel guilty, or existential about doing nothing.
5. The Lumberjack’s Dove, by GennaRose Nethercott
This is a surreal and mystical feeling narrative poem which, Like Ron Padgett’s “Big Cabin” straddles the line between the real world and something else. There is a hyper-realism to this work that is overpoweringly perfumed with a fairytale haze. It refuses to bend to any agreed-upon reality or even any consensus about the textbook qualities of fairy tales. It was strange and short enough to be readable but the qualifying reason I have included it in my highlights here is because it was written by a Vermont author. The world before coronavirus was smaller because it was easy to expand your life into faraway places. The world after coronavirus is smaller because the borders of what feels relevant to you: relevant art, relevant news, relevant experience, have been drawn smaller. This paradox suits me just fine.
I am planning to finally fly back to China in one week, and my suitcase now looks very different from the one I packed one year ago in a more hopeful, and maybe naive, kind of departure. One side of my suitcase is packed with enough snacks to get me through three weeks of Chinese quarantine where I will undoubtedly be served myriad variations of mystery meat. The other side of my suitcase is exclusively reserved for books. Like many people, I think, even as the world begins to open up again, and we all tentatively resume where we left off or start new chapters, there is a trust in circumstance and an egotism to the way we see ourselves in the world that has been shattered. I hope that I will be able to gorge myself on sensory pleasures again and even forget my fallibility for awhile. But even as I hope I know I am wiser than that. I no longer trust in the abundance of the world or the future, I no longer feel impervious to disaster. Which is why I have packed books, dozens of books. Because I know, no matter what happens next, they will get me through.
Hailey Neal is a writer and teacher of writers who, in the most aggressive snowbird campaign in human history, splits her time between Beijing and Vermont. She has her bachelor’s in professional writing and her master’s in education. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in From Whispers to Roars, The Closed Eye Open, Ember Chasm Review, The Finger Literary Journal, and Tempered Runes Press. Alarmingly, she had to look up whether to capitalize “professional writing” for this bio. If you find any other typos in here, this is a test.
This post is part of 805 Lit + Art’s “My Home Library” blog series that features writers and artists enjoying their home libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic. 805 is proudly published by the Manatee County Public Library System, and we hope this series will help people show off their home libraries, find comfort in books, and feel a connection to the library during this difficult time.