Essay: A book from another era in which time seemed to stop

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2020 4:24:38 PM
Modified: 3/14/2020 5:39:08 PM

At one point, sitting at my desk in the newsroom on Thursday and reading about the growing list of institutions temporarily closing up shop in the face of the coronavirus, I was reminded of The Decameron.

Written by the 14th-century Florentine poet and scholar Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron is a series of stories told by 10 people of noble birth who have fled to the countryside to escape the Black Death. They tell the stories to amuse themselves and the tales are as funny, wry and dirty as anything we might hunt up on a streaming service.

I’m sure The Decameron is on the minds of many people, particularly in northern Italy, where the outbreak is most severe. We are all facing an upheaval, of a kind. Not the Black Death, but a global pandemic that calls for a global response.

There’s often a huge cognitive gap in contemporary American life, the gap between how terrible we’re told things could be and how smoothly things seem to proceed nonetheless, as when a meteorologist predicts a blizzard and all that falls are a few downy inches. We’re well prepared, and not for nothing. When our preparedness wins out, and the dire predictions don’t come to pass, we wonder what the fuss was about, forgetting that we took steps to mitigate the disaster. Into that gap rushes all sorts of nonsense: conspiracy theories, dopey social media memes, a seemingly endless capacity to speculate and cast blame.

I’ve seen a lot of complaints about how much “the media,” whatever people mean by that, has whipped people into a frenzy. That hasn’t been my experience, though I spend a lot of my day reading newspaper stories. Most of what I’ve read has been sober, thoughtful, measured. What I know about COVID-19 I learned from “the media,” and that’s probably true for you, too, so settle down before you condemn the messenger. If we listen to what the epidemiologists tell reporters, maybe the gap between the worst-case scenario and what actually transpires will remain wide and we can continue to live in that ironic distance.

In the Upper Valley, the gap might be even wider, as we’re already a bit isolated, at a pastoral remove from the world of cruise ships, theme parks and subways. There are benefits to not being a hot spot. The characters in The Decameron are well-to-do, able to leave Florence for the hills without a second thought. I read that wealthy New Yorkers are fleeing to their compounds in the Hamptons, and surely some local residents are similarly fortunate. Most of us aren’t; a missed paycheck can sink us. It’s worth remembering that on a global scale, working class Americans are pretty well off.

A newspaper chronicles daily life, and much of that life is in abeyance. The stories that cross my desk are mostly about arts and culture, a lot of which is on hold. Some of our local institutions are carrying on, but around the world, many have halted: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Broadway, and so on. TV game shows are filming in studios emptied of their audiences. But it isn’t only the arts, as we know. Sporting events have gone dark, from high school games to European football matches. I just filled out my son’s youth baseball registration forms. We’ll see how that goes.

Colleges and universities, which are closer to the wider world than our local public schools are, have told students to head home and stay there. I have read on social media calls for local schools to shut their doors for a week or two. That will be tough on working parents. There have been few reassurances for ordinary people that they can do what they need to do without facing financial hardship.

If my son’s school closes, I can do some of my work from home. What might those days be like? They will exist out of time as we usually know it, a fictional moment that’s become real. We’ll be waiting, waiting, until someone gives the all clear.

My house is too small for me to invite nine friends over to tell stories until the plague passes. As a bit of an introvert, and more than a bit of a crank, I’m not sure I even have nine friends, or that I’d want to hang out with them (or them with me) for that long.

If it comes to that — more “social distancing” than what I already practice — I have a stack of books waiting to be read. And I can go for walks. If the weather cooperates, my son and I can play catch in the yard.

My college-boy copy of The Decameron is long gone, though. Maybe I can order one, as a reminder that other people, in other places, have been through something like this before, and that we’re far better off, and better informed, now than they were then, sequestered in the hills and making up stories.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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