Pandemic Moods

Hi everyone,

In order to dig myself out of my unplanned break, I’m going to write some newsletter issues where I just post some short fragments of things I’m thinking about rather than full blown essays.

This is of course completely the opposite of my plans for writing more edited and polished pieces, but never mind. We do what we can, not what we would in an ideal world.

Depression and the Pandemic

Various people have suggested that I write a newsletter issue about my feelings about the pandemic. Writing a long piece about why I’m feeling terrible sounds like the absolute worst, so I'm not going to, but here are some short thoughts on it.

The analogy I have been using is that it's like being ten hours into an eleven hour long-haul flight (remember flights?). All the worst is over, and you're nearly there, but at the same time all your resources for dealing with the tedium have been worn down and there's still a whole hour to go and you are just incredibly impatient for the whole thing to be done and have zero tolerance left for it.

What does this look like in practice?

Well, partly it looks like really missing people. This isn't exactly part of my moment to moment experience, but every time the idea of hanging out with people comes up I realise how much I miss it. I was reading Jane Jacobs's “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” recently and I had to stop because of how much it made me want to immerse myself in a bustling city scene. It's a good book and I'm looking forward to reading it... in about six months when I've been vaccinated and had a chance to bury myself under a pile of all my friends.

The moment to moment experience is just textbook depression, though the sort of textbook depression that doesn't look like the stereotypical “woe is me, I am so miserable” sadness that people tend to think of. It's more like being stuck in neutral. I don't exactly feel bad, but I don't feel good either, everything just feels a bit pointless and I want to fast forward to the time where the world has meaning again.

A consequence of this feeling of pointlessness is that I am totally lacking in inspiration or ability for creative output. I reach for the place where words come from and there is nothing there. This even shows up in conversations to some degree, where my brain just stalls out mid sentence. I'm generally OK at responding to people, but not at generating meaningful new contributions to the conversation.

As you can imagine, this makes writing a bit difficult. I'm going to do my best to work around that and write anyway, because the best way to work my way out of a feeling of restricted possibility is to experience what is actually possible, but it's not straightforward.

All this being said, the last couple of days my mood seems to have improved significantly, and I don’t entirely understand why. It might be slightly more (remote) social contact, it might be more sunlight and getting outside more, it might be disrupted sleep accidentally pushing me into a submanic phase. Who knows? It’s weird being human.

Reading Books

A thing I've been thinking about recently is that people never really learn how to be readers. People can read, but there’s more to being a reader than simply knowing how to read.

In school, what you read is handed to you, and you'll read it whether you like it or not if you want to get a good grade. You have minimal choice over the selection of books, and certainly don't have the option to say that actually this isn’t the book for you and you'd rather not thanks.

As a result you never learn:

1. How to select a text from the near infinite number of available texts to read.

2. How to decide a text is not working for you and stop reading it.

It is very hard to be a reader without these skills.

If you lack the first, you end up overwhelmed by the possibilities. Either you never pick up a book because you don’t know how, or you end up with a giant pile of books sitting staring at you waiting to be read because you don’t know how to filter enough.

If you lack the second, you’ll end up spending a lot of time reading bad books, and you may be reluctant to read at all because picking a book up is a commitment to a potentially unpleasant slog (cf. Believing that you can stop).

The result of either scenario is that even though you can read, you probably won’t.

In many ways I think the popularity of social media is that it doesn't require you to use either of these skills: The feed selects your reading for you, and posts are short enough that by the time you ask whether to skip over them you're done.

This is an ongoing thought process, but part of why I've been thinking about this is that I recently picked up a copy of “How to use books” by Lionel McColvin, a book published in in the UK in the immediate aftermath of World War II and commissioned by the National Book League (a charity who have since renamed as Booktrust apparently). I bought it as a joke, but I unironically really like it. It's about 50% material that is so out of date that it constitutes interesting historical information, and the other 50% is a genuinely insightful account of, well, how to use books.

Let me quote you some excerpts from it that try to teach these two missing skills. From page 19:

In general reading the best method is that of following up on each new line of thought as it is disclosed and pursuing it as long as its fascination holds or until a greater attraction is offered. To plan a course of reading beforehand is undesirable - unless, of course, you have a definite objective. If you say, “I will read first this, then that, and then the other”, you make reading a self-imposed duty rather than a compelling pleasure. Set off, instead, with an inquiring mind, resolved “to get to the bottom of it”, but without ever saying what “it” is, and you will be happy. In reading there is always something around the corner.

How are you to know what you will enjoy until you meet with it?

Just one example of a reader's pilgrimage (as indicated by a list of books he had read): He evidently began with a pamphlet on the United Nations project, and the topics about which he next read were, in this order, the causes of warm the biology of war (the “man is a pugnacious animal and is bound to keep on squabbling” idea), the social life of animals (to see if there was anything in the theory), the social life of primitive man, primitive religion and magic, the wanderings of prehistoric peoples, the archaeology of England, the old churches of England, the work of the craftsmen of the Middle Ages and their guilds. Now he is dipping into the works of William Morris and, probably, the cycle of his thoughts will take him next to socialism, thence to internationalism and so back to his starting point. These literary explorations have a knack of running in circles, returning home at intervals, but pursuing their course without any conscious plan.

And to think, this was before Wikipedia had ever been invented.

From page 28 and 29:

We cannot overlook the fact that it is difficult to choose enjoyable books. There are thousands each one of us will enjoy, but there are probably tens of thousands each one of us won't like. The reader is apt to think: “I have so little time for reading that I must not waste it.” Exactly. But if you should select a book, from your library shall we say, and you find you don't like it - as you will do before you have gone far with it - you are under no compulsion to waste any more time upon it. Give it up and try another. There is no need to finish every book you start.

This may sound very dangerous advice - and it would be were you not sensible in your attitude towards books. Many a masterpiece which later you will cherish may, when you first approach it, seem dull and difficult. It may repel you. Its outlook may be so different from what you feel it should be; its ideas may be so new to you, that you are quite out of sympathy with them. Shall you - because of what has just been said - make no attempt to overcome this unfavourable first impression? The answer is “No”.

There are two reasons why you won't like a book, why it will fail to interest or please you. On the one hand, it might have nothing to give you: no new ideas; no charm of style. You feel at once that it is an inferior book, that its attitude is false, or that you have already read it all before in other and better books. In other words, you don't like it because it is not good enough. Discard it without hesitation. On the other hand, however, you may sense that the fault is not so much with the book as with yourself, that you are a little prejudiced against its outlook, that you disagree, or you might be just a little too lazy to make the necessary effort to find out what it is all about. You might have the feeling that though you don't like it there is nevertheless “something in it”, something that it might be worth your while to discover. Such books present a different problem. Treat books as you would the men and women you meet in your daily life. Some are so obviously shallow, narrow-minded and commonplace that you have no desire to cultivate their acquaintance; others you like instinctively; others you might find elusive, strange, “different”, but you feel that they have character. These arouse your interest; you want to know them better; and usually they improve on acquaintance, and from them you may learn much of value. So it is with books.

A great deal of this book is this sort of very sensible advice. I'd strongly recommend it if you can find a copy. You might not be able to though. It's out of print, so if you all rush out and buy it you'll probably quickly exhaust the pool of available copies, and there is not currently an ebook available (legally or otherwise).

Another, related, thing is that I often find that people struggle to read because they're reading the wrong books in some more subtle way, which is that the books are bringing up subtle negative emotions. I've found this in the past where e.g. I found myself stubbornly unable to read, until I switched away from the program of reading about therapy (which I'd been doing fine on prior to that point) and over to something less emotionally intense.

I mentioned something like this happening with Jane Jacobs. It actually almost happened with this book as well - I found myself with this absolutely intense desire to go visit a library or book shop - but it was short enough that I persevered through those parts (and it's less acute anyway. It’s not like I’m short of books right now).

So I guess this is maybe my main piece of advice not contained in the above: If you're struggling to read, have you tried reading something you actually enjoy?

Writing

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter recently. It starts with Oliver Burkeman's piece “Are we there yet?”, and how called out I felt by the opening paragraph:

In one of his talks or interviews – I've never been able to trace where I first heard it – the author and podcaster Sam Harris recalls being in the middle of a long session of moaning to a friend, about all the crap he was dealing with at the time, when she interrupted him. "Hold on," she said (or words to this effect). "Are you still under the illusion that you'll one day reach a point in your life where you no longer have any problems?"

When I posted this I got the response “Oh this is great. I didn't know other people felt like this.”, to which I glibly replied “And this is why we write.”

I think there is a deep truth in this response.

I've long been an advocate of people writing more, but I'm not sure I've ever articulated why people should write more better than this: I want you to write more because I want to learn more about what it's like to be you.

I wrote about daily writing practices a while back, and I still think they're great, but honestly they're far too much to sustain for more than about a month. But, despite my recent struggles with the practice, I think a weekly newsletter is pretty manageable, and I think most people could manage the sort of “Here's some stuff” approach I'm doing this week, where you just include a couple of fragments of things you're thinking about at the moment, talk a bit about what your life is like and how you're conceptualising it, and generally just contribute a slice of your unique experience of the world to the general collective process of making sense of our lives. I recommend it.