For a few weeks in 2020, I thought I was going to die. And then as time passed, I realized that while others around me were dying—at one point my small city had one of the highest death rates in Massachusetts, due to a number of long-term care facilities in the city—that people like me, who didn’t have to leave the house to work or buy groceries and who did not live with anyone who had to leave the house to do those things, were probably not going to die. But that only made it more important that I not leave my house.
I have always been a reader, but in this time, simply reading alone seemed only emphasize the crushing isolation of the time. Despite the fact that I’ve always loved reading, I had never been part of a book group. This was partly because I had strong feelings about what I wanted to read, and I worried that a book group would require me to read things I didn’t care about. But shortly after the lockdown began, I saw that Yiyun Li, via the literary journal A Public Space, was offering a virtual reading group, #TolstoyTogether, to read War and Peace. This was a book I wanted to read. I had tackled a couple of years earlier but had only made it through the first third. The fact that Li was using the same translation I owned, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, made my participation seem ordained, though the organizers made it clear that any translation would do.
The plan was to read the book over twelve weeks. There were no discussions, no meetings over wine or coffee. Li broke up the readings into daily chunks and posted observations on a blog. People in the group could and did tweet comments. I quickly learned what my earlier problem with reading the book had been—I had tried to read it too quickly, hoping to race through it in three weeks or so, and had quickly become lost in the names and titles. Following Li’s slower, patient pace (though I always tried to stay three or four pages ahead of the assignments, in case I hit a day when I ran out of time), I began to absorb who was who and what was going on. I found that I actually retained some of my earlier reading and that dipping into those early chapters again added new depth. At the slower pace, I had time to be alternately awed by Tolstoy’s craft and annoyed by many of his opinions, as well as by the fact that he felt entitled to lecture his readers on so many of those ideas, like a bombastic old uncle at a dinner party who takes up all the air in the room but who you can’t stop talking about after he leaves. I even delighted in doing my best to work out the French with my limited knowledge before resorting to the English translations at the bottoms of the pages.
Other reading groups followed, because as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 brought an older public health crisis to the forefront—that of racism. Local clergy organized reading groups to read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and following that, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Members of a local chapter of Our Revolution decided to read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. My old writing group decided to read Lily King’s Euphoria together and meet (virtually) to discuss it one Saturday, and following that we read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A group from my Quaker meeting began meeting once a month to read aloud and discuss poems; my local public library formed a play-reading group in which we gathered virtually to read aloud plays by Lynn Nottage (Sweat), Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves), and Kirsten Greenidge (The Luck of the Irish). Unlike the #TolstoyTogether group, which drew thousands of members, these community groups typically involved eight to twelve people. Then there was the T Book Club, sponsored by the New York Times. This club—I imagine that hundreds or even thousands logged on to these sessions—consisted of presentations by living authors of classic American novels—I tuned in for discussions of Nella Larsen’s Passing, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain by Brit Bennet, Claire Messud, and Ayana Mathis.
Many of the books or readings in these groups were new to me, but many were not. I had read Passing long ago, but not The Custom of the Country. I’d read Euphoria and Bel Canto but not The End of Policing, Caste, or How to Be an Anti-Racist. While the #TolstoyTogether group encouraged me to slow down in my reading of War and Peace, other book groups allowed me to speed through books—especially those I’d read before—knowing that I only needed to capture the big ideas, not the subtleties of characterization of dialogue, because others would be supporting my interpretation with their own reading.
And so it was that one of my favorite solitary activities—reading—offered a way to maintain connections with people in my community, friends (my former writing group), and even the larger world through book groups. And book groups of different types taught me that different types of books require different modes and reading tempos. Lessons it seemed I would have learned long ago, but that required a pandemic to teach me.