As you may have gathered from my most recent column, I’m not choosing my reading based on its supposed appropriateness for a time such as this. (Many people feel otherwise, I know, and that’s fine: Let a thousand flowers bloom.) But I have to add, as I mentioned last week, that what I am reading may lead unexpectedly to this moment, even if there is seemingly no connection.
For example, between the previous column and this one, I was re-reading Alec Ryrie’s book Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, which I am reviewing for the Englewood Review of Books. I first read it near the end of last year; this time around, I found myself wondering what Ryrie would say about this new pandemic and its impact. In the book, he says—perhaps counterintuitively—that illness and personal suffering don’t seem to have been a primary instigator of “doubt” among Christians in early modern times; rather, he identifies anger and anxiety as the prime drivers. (He doesn’t address the Black Death, which came a bit earlier than the period on which he focuses.)
In the same way, reading for review a galley of Greg Woolf’s The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History, I couldn’t help thinking about how a future historian might look back at our cities, both in the United States and in the global system in which they are embedded. Reading about the first cities and the greater ones that followed, their rise and fall over the centuries, offers a perspective that is at once consoling and chilly. Uruk, Veii, Sparta, the Rome of the Caesars . . . our predecessors. Who will come after us? What cities will they build?
And then there is Christopher Wanjek’s Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond, yet another book to be reviewed. In a way, Wanjek offers a futuristic counterpart to Woolf’s sweeping historical overview: In such vistas, our present concerns—the suffering and death, the loss of jobs, the disorientation and radical uncertainty—can seem to shrink into insignificance.
To reckon with the reality of suffering and dislocation, which may (we don’t know) be coming soon to our own door, to offer practical help (financial and otherwise) and consolation, to weep with those who weep—and yet at the same time acknowledge that we are strangers in a strange land, looking forward to the Peaceable Kingdom: that’s the tension we’re called to maintain as we join in worship “remotely,” pray regularly and irregularly, go about our jobs (if we still have them, some of them putting us on the front lines where the virus is most threatening), cling to our spouses at night in bed or settle down alone, take walks every day, homeschool our children for the first time, order food to be delivered to distant parents, watch movies at home, read Agatha Christie and the Psalms, keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter, and prepare as best we can for whatever comes next.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.