Did the Pandemic Change Summer Reading for Good? I Hope So.

So when did summer reading start to sour?

Was it when my kids were little, during those busy years when I yearned to lose myself in a novel only to find a spare hour and lack the concentration? Was it when I started curating lists of “10 Hottest Reads” and “Must-Have Beach Books” for my old job as a magazine editor, then waffled about which ones to recommend to friends? Was it the year I tweeted about a different book every morning, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, expending more energy on clever descriptions and pithy hash tags than I did on what was between the covers?

I still looked forward to the season’s bumper crop of books the way a baseball fan looks forward to Opening Day. But it had become stressful; I had taken a simple pleasure and turned it into sport.

Last year, I gathered warm-weather reading, the same way I always do. Then I swept the front porch, lugged waterproof throw pillows from the basement and located my bifocal sunglasses. But, in the first quarter of the pandemic, I had trouble dragging myself through a paragraph, let alone a novel; I’d just sit there, looking at the dark school across the street and listening to empty commuter trains hurtling toward New York City. One day I disinfected the mailbox. By the end of spring, I’d plodded through a few books with the air of an exhausted hiker, eyes trained on the trail instead of the view.

I knew I wasn’t alone. When I talked with fellow readers, we traded stories of skimming and scrolling, harking back to those awful, deeply distracted weeks after 9/11. I still remember the book that brought me back to the fold 20 years ago: “Look at Me,” by Jennifer Egan (no relation, unfortunately) — a novel about a woman returning to Manhattan after a car accident leaves her with 80 titanium screws in her face.

One night last July, while my daughters baked chocolate chip cookies, I settled onto the love seat on our baggy-screened back porch and started reading Lacy Crawford’s memoir, “Notes on a Silencing.” This is a harrowing exploration of sexual assault; it is not escapist reading, but I still inhaled it in one sitting. When I looked up, the neighborhood was dark. The baking trays had run through the dishwasher’s longest cycle (for cooks who don’t rinse) and the cookies were mostly gone. I slept well for the first time in weeks, my mind full of heartbreak, but also courage and peace.

The next night I read another book. And another one the night after that. Eventually I got in the habit of bringing my reading to the pool where my son works as a lifeguard. Sinking my toes into the AstroTurf lawn, I lost myself in a novel until the snack bar closed and the sun set behind the graveyard across the street. I felt like a teenager again: distracted and transported, entertained and entranced. When I came up for air, it took me a second to remember why I was wearing a mask.

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