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Read a book instead

God on the Rocks book cover, on an Adirondack style chair
Ralph Gardner Jr.

This week I did something I haven’t done for a while. I read a book. The cause of my plunge into literature was Covid. On Monday as I was driving my daughter to the airport I developed a scratchy throat. By Tuesday night the symptoms included a cough and shortness of breath. I suspected a summer cold but tested anyway Wednesday morning. Somewhat to my surprise I tested positive.

I never felt awful. I’d gone running in Central Park Tuesday morning without noticeable distress. Or should I say no more distress than usual. I sometimes wonder whether the reason I make it around the reservoir isn’t because I’m in shape but because I’m excessively goal-oriented.

A call to my doctor resulted in a prescription for Paxlovid, the antiviral drug that lowers ones’ risk of hospitalization. By noon I’d consumed my first dose consisting of three ample pills – two of one medication, one of another, that work in combination. The worst and only noticeable side effect was a disgusting taste in my mouth. I implored my wife to pick up Life Savers at the supermarket since I was quaranteeing.

Why Life Savers I’m not sure. My grandfather always had a roll in his pocket and used to dole them out on walks in the park. I wasn’t excited about them as a child. I’m still not. But experimental medications apparently make one do and desire strange things. My spouse couldn’t find Life Savers – do they even still exist? – and returned home with a bag of Jolly Ranchers.

They didn’t enchant the taste buds, but they were better than the Paxlovid alternative – what felt like a combination of early 1970’s cottonmouth and a gum-stained sidewalk.

My daughter also came down with Covid as soon as she returned to British Columbia, where she lives and works these days. She was knocked out with a bad cough, shallow breaking, an achy body and generalized misery. I don’t know whether I fared better because I got on Paxlovid promptly or because life is unfair. But she’s young and healthy and after several days of bed rest is on her way to recovery. Gracie paid a high price for a ride to the airport.

While I avoided a trip to the emergency room my body, perhaps abetted by the one/two punch of an antiviral, did feel as if it were urging me, not that I required much persuasion, to avoid work and chores. It did so by rewarding me with profound afternoon naps.

Yet when I awoke I still felt compelled to accomplish something. That’s where God on the Rocks, a novel by British author Jane Gardam, came in. It’s not as if I’ve sworn off books. But I typically read a page or two, or three before dosing off at night. That’s no way to consume literature. It makes it a challenge to keep track of important aspects of the story such as plot and characters. I started Pachinko, an alleged page-turning generational saga by Min Jin Lee, in early spring and didn’t complete it until July.

Advanced age may be one reason for my delinquent reading habits. But a more immediate cause is what’s sometimes referred to as doom scrolling; though I prefer to think of it as keeping abreast of current events. Give me five minutes or even thirty seconds and I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of the war in Ukraine, climate change or Joe Manchin hating. I’m told that’s not good for the health, that it’s a form of addiction under the guise of enlightenment.

I tend to agree. It’s satisfying to know that Linda Greenhouse at The New York Times and Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post share my belief that the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court constitutes an amber alert for democracy. But that’s not the same thing as doing something about it.

God on the Rocks, a coming of age story about an eight-year-old prodigy that occurs in British between two world wars, isn’t the easiest book. While it’s not Ulysses, it requires the reader to avoid distractions. The rewards are substantial, the author possessing the gift of capturing thoughts on the edge of consciousness.

The unduplicatable experience that books offer is to immerse the reader in an adjacent universe, but only after the reader pays the price of admission. They need to show up. Chemistry, if not alchemy, is involved. Were it a soufflé the reader would be responsible for providing several essential ingredients without which the soufflé would fall flat.

Reading a page or two at bedtime is nothing less than breaking that contract between reader and writer. It’s almost a sign of disrespect. Losing yourself in a book these days provides the added benefit of helping you avoid the mounting depredations of our species. I’m on to Ms. Gardam’s next book. Hopefully, it won’t require reinfection to apply myself.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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