Welcome to EW's Quarantine Book Club: A series in which EW staffers discuss how their reading habits are changing and growing in the Coronavirus era.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 20, 2020 at 01:39 PM EDT
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With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety, isolation, and looots of free time through books. In this inaugural entry, digital writer and romance columnist Maureen Lee Lenker explains how she's adjusting to this new normal.

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I am one of those annoying bibliophiles. You know the type — my bookshelves are alphabetized and organized by genre; I collect editions of my favorite titles; and I never, ever go without a bookmark. A dog-eared page is a sacrilegious act, a desecration of an item that should instead be handled like the golden idol at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So I’ve never been a bathtub reader. What if the pages get damp?! What if, god forbid, I make a false move and drop the whole book in the tub? The possibilities were too horrifying to consider.

Leave it to the intense, unrelenting anxiety of self-isolation and the minute-to-minute news updates of the COVID-19 pandemic to convert this overly precious book lover.

This situation should, frankly, be great for reading. With hours of time cooped up at home, it’s the perfect time to cozy up with a book (or several). But it’s also incredibly difficult to focus right now. The pings of my Twitter alerts and messages from friends and family bored in their houses constantly pull me away from the usual comfort of a fictional escape.

Romance novels (which I review for EW monthly) are a surefire way to shut out the doom and gloom of the world. To even be categorized as a romance, a book has to have an HEA — that’s happily-ever-after. What’s more soothing than the promise of a happy ending? But every time I’d tried to read Lorraine Heath’s The Earl Takes a Fancy, my attempts to lose myself in a Victorian Earl wooing an illegitimate bookseller were derailed by intensifying quarantine measures.

I swear I read a sentence describing the heroine’s full lips, high cheekbones, and inviting smile at least ten times as news of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order broke, then prompting a flurry of text messages on the family text chain since my sister lives in the Bay Area. I set the book aside, knowing I couldn’t possibly concentrate on it for the time being.

In five days, I’d get through 75 pages; I typically finish at least two books in that. I’d read two sentences, scroll through Twitter, go through a spiral of existential dread, attempt to read the sentences again, check in on the latest pop culture event to get postponed, read a message from a friend who spent an hour trying to buy butter, then relitigate the eternal debate of whether my chest pain was anxiety or the first signs of my impending doom.

At a certain point, I was looking for anything to reduce my stress levels. Los Angeles restaurants and bars were closing; New York City was intensifying measures by the hour. Was there some way to not dwell on that? Even for 15 minutes? A boozy bath seemed in order. I can’t bring technology in there with me — that’s half the point. While running the water, the idea first hit me.

Maybe a glass of white wine would calm my harried mind enough to allow me to process a book in ways I’d been finding myself incapable of doing. If all the things I love most are canceled and all the people I love most are in danger, who the f—k cares if a book gets wet? Like, really, why have I spent years worrying about this? You know what paper does after it gets wet? It dries. You know what happens if you destroy a book by accident? You can buy another one — it’s not like I’m taking my signed collection of Tennessee Williams plays in there. And I’m long past worrying about falling into any self-care stereotypes.

Let me tell you, I have been missing out. It was glorious. I’m guilty of using flowery language in my reviews, likening a comforting read to taking a warm bath or being wrapped in a blanket — who knew this could be a literal experience? I found a way to restore my reading sanity. I read until the water turned cold and my pruny thumbs demanded I stop. The guarantee of the happily-ever-after at the end of the romance novels could actually, once again, be a reassuring balm, as soothing as the rose-scented candle burning on the sink.

I never thought I’d become a bathtub reader, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I can’t see myself turning back now — even after our lives go back to some semblance of normal. But only with paperbacks. I’m not a monster.

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