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Editorial: Reading in the time of coronavirus

Published: 3/18/2020 10:15:18 PM
Modified: 3/18/2020 10:15:10 PM

As the coronavirus pandemic plays out and social distancing becomes the new (temporary, we trust) norm, residents of the Upper Valley, as elsewhere, may find themselves with unaccustomed time on their hands. Depending on how long it lasts, this will be experienced as a hardship for many, an irritation for others and, perhaps for a smaller number, an opportunity to reset their busy daily routines.

Whichever group you fall into, it’s important not to equate enforced free time with unproductive idleness. Take the example of Isaac Newton, as related recently by The Washington Post.

In 1665, while Newton was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, the Great Plague of London struck. Cambridge did then what many colleges are now doing — it sent students home to continue their studies on their own.

The year that this precocious 20-something spent away from the university was an astonishingly productive one: Newton’s work in mathematics gave birth to calculus; his experiments with prisms resulted in his theory of optics; and the apple tree outside his window at his family’s estate, Woolsthorpe Manor, famously yielded the fruit of his theories of gravity and motion.

We do not suppose that the precautions required by the coronavirus will produce any works of genius on the order of Newton’s. But time to let one’s mind roam widely is a precious commodity in the welter of modern society and its incessant digital distractions. And with both college and professional sports, concerts and other kinds of large gatherings on hold, many matters that normally preoccupy people are laid aside. But in favor of what?

Reading more is a compelling choice. Those who normally profess themselves too busy to read a general-interest daily newspaper now have the chance to acquaint, or reacquaint, themselves with the importance of doing so. And those who already are newspaper readers should commend the practice to friends who are not. It is nearly impossible to be a responsible and engaged member of any community facing something like the coronavirus without taking the time of read a reputable newspaper. And if there are older children in the house, read the paper with them and discuss it. Should the habit take hold, you will have done yourself and your posterity, as well as the Valley News, a good turn.

And, with time now permitting, it is within reach to tackle those big books that have long beckoned but intimidated. It may be time at last to take down The Iliad, Moby-Dick, the essays of Emerson, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, or as our colleague Alex Hanson suggested in an essay last Saturday, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a particularly apt choice in the midst of a pandemic, as perhaps is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts the scene in London that led to Newton’s temporary exile from Cambridge.

Classics become classics, of course, because they afford pleasure and instruction across the ages, and readers at all times and in all circumstances find in them something fresh and original that speaks to their own experiences. Much wisdom is to be had there.

We also make the pitch here that those who avoid the perceived difficulties of poetry should give the form a second, or third, or fourth chance with the gift of leisure. Beauty and pathos are to be found in the treasure chest of poetry, although often it does not yield its rewards easily and can be unlocked only by diligent reading and rereading. But those who persist in their solitude may find there balm for a troubled soul in these frightening times.

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