There is a room upstairs in my home we call the study. It’s where I work, read, listen to music, imagine and dream. It’s also home to a great many books.
I admit I like the reaction when people see the room for the first time. It’s nowhere near as grand as that moment in the animated “Beauty and the Beast” movie, when the Beast opens the door to his library, but the feeling is similar. And nearly always, the same question comes first.
“Have you read all these books?”
I have a stock answer.
“I hope not.”
I keep books I have read as artifacts, evidence of part of my history. I keep books I have not read as hope for the future. I am in my early 60s now — still young enough that there is a lot of work to do. But it has been easy for me to imagine a time when my own work will stop, when a chair on the back porch will become more familiar, and when I will spend my days reading the books I’ve always meant to get to. My old age, I have thought, no matter how infirm I may become, will explode with literature.
And now COVID-19 has enforced an isolation. I cannot distract myself with travel, with the company of friends, with aimless strolls through the town and the serendipitous introduction.
In this isolation, there is the opportunity to open the books I own but have not read, to see what promise I have made to myself.
I own the complete works of Anthony Trollope. I have no idea why. I read “Barchester Towers” and “The Warden” in graduate school, though frankly I don’t remember a thing about them other than I liked them. The man was insanely prolific. Twelve volumes, beautifully bound by the Oxford University Press.
I think I bought the set just to own a set. I never imagined I would sit down and read them all. But I never imagined COVID-19, either.
I own the collected stories of Louis Auchincloss and the collected stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Five decades of Irwin Shaw. I’ve been meaning to get to those, someday.
For some reason, I own “Best American Short Stories of 1945,” edited by Martha Foley, with “decorations” (drawings) by Angna Enters. This one volume holds “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” by Nelson Algren, “The Test” by Brendan Gill, and “Rain in the Heart” by Peter Taylor. I have not read these stories. But my gosh, now I want to.
I suppose it would be embarrassing, or a confession, to admit that I have yet to read “Ahab’s Wife” by Sena Jeter Naslund, “Seven Gothic Tales” by Isak Dinesen, Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” But they are all on my shelves. It’s only a matter of starting.
“The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” Euripides, “The Oresteia,” Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” “Confessions of Saint Augustine,” even “A Journal of a Plague Year” are on my shelves, to date unread. And there are a great many books of simpler challenge, too.
There is nothing good about a pandemic. But there is everything good about newly discovered time to read. That’s always been my excuse. I’ve never had the time to sink into the really deep work. But now, it seems I have some time. And let’s not talk about the books I have read and loved and wish to revisit.
I cannot be a flâneur these days, so I will return to the once and future essential habit. I will be a reader. In a time of isolation, let my life explode with literature.
W. Scott Olsen is a writer and teacher in Moorhead, Minn.