As social isolation from the novel virus threatens to drive us all mad, novel book clubs bring Washingtonians together from afar.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” [the doctor] said, “how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.”
“It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”
I wish it were a tale whose relevance were cabined to 1947, when Albert Camus published the Nobel Prize-winning The Plague (translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert); or to the world of fiction it occupies.
But we’ve heard both that “truth is stranger than fiction” and that “history is bound to repeat itself.” And in the case of the current fast-spreading coronavirus and COVID-19, its deadly disease, it appears that both are determined to prove true at once.
As of today, here in Seattle — like many other places both nationally and globally — the city is in a state of semi-lockdown. Bars are closed, as are restaurants unless it’s for carry-out or delivery. Performance spaces and movie theaters, gyms and community centers, even schools and libraries are all ordered closed for at least two weeks; some say, for the foreseeable future. In short, all the gathering spaces are closed. Even at private events, social distancing — and now more like social isolation — are all but commanded.
Into this weird space, The Stranger editor and book buff Christopher Frizzelle has launched a group that’s as thoughtful as it is hastily put-together: the Quarantine Club, an all-virtual book club whose first read is — what else? — Camus’s The Plague. The club invites participants to send in the essentials electronically: photos of their reading digs (chair, pets, book); quick bios (whether it’s their first time with The Plague, where they’re reading, what they’re snacking on); and responses, both to the reading material and one another. Everyone reads the same book sections at once, according to a reasonably paced schedule.
Last week, Frizzelle got things started. The minute level of detail in his book commentary, as in his recent rumination on the temporary closure of the Palace Kitchen, feels personal narrative-style. It’s like The Stranger without its guard up. A refreshing approach.
This week, the club officially got rolling, with club members’ reading chair/book/pet photos, and comments on Part I of the book.
As for me? I’m enjoying the club a lot, on several fronts. I need a reason to stick with a book, or it ends up on my “to read” aspirational shelf. (Hint: there are already several such shelves, and they don’t need more company there.) The timing of now is perfect, as even my introverted self withers under the lack of shared experience, particularly in the arts. And the comments are thoughtful and present; they’re not a pissing contest of who knows more, which for some reason seems to thrive in both Seattle and the Internet, and doubly so when the two combine.
The book is an ideal pick — obviously topical, but also both beautiful and approachable. The details of Camus’s lovely prose are vivid. It’s eerie — and worse — how close they mimic the current state of affairs. The descriptors are slower-paced. But it feels undeniably like a book written for today, in this weird moment sweeping us all up.
You can see if the club is for you — and find my dog Bunty amidst the photos — here.
And if you need something less plague-y, Frizzelle’s isn’t the only club in town. Another, Quarantine Book Club by Western Washington University professor and author Josh Cerretti, is taking up a much different book: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, a brand new novel of a relationship between queer Black teenagers, written by Junauda Petrus.
Will the shared experience of social isolation be the thing that, paradoxically, thaws the so-called Seattle Freeze? Time will tell, but it’s off to a promising — if harrowing — start.
Find all of NWTheatre’s coverage of COVID-19 here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.