Quarantine has been a strange thing. I keep telling myself that it isn’t that bad. I get to stay home, I get to read, I get to write. All the things that I have wanted time to do, and sneak minutes here and there, in between spending time with my family and work. I’ve been more productive in my writing that I have at any point in my life. I’ve gotten more done around the house than I ever thought possible. I’ve read more books so far in quarantine than I have in some years. All of these things should make me happy, right? They should make me feel fulfilled, because they hang over me as things I want to do while I’m doing other things. Now I’m actually doing them, and I feel as though it’s not enough. I need to get more done. I’m being too lazy when I decide to slow down and watch a television show. That’s 43 minutes that could have been used on something else. Something more productive. I only have so long in quarantine after all. Things seem to be coming to a close here. This forced “vacation” is almost done. Will I be happy with myself when I do go back to work? Will I be happy when I know that I have to sneak a few minutes here and there for these things that I’ve been able to do freely for going on two months?
Years ago I started collecting John Steinbeck novels. Not just buying them at Barnes and Noble, but actually seeking out First Editions and unique printings. He is my favorite author, you see, and I want to be able to look at my book shelf and feel the nostalgia. I want to look upon those unique covers and have the stories rush back to me. I find that having those unique covers delivers this feeling, much more so than the standard Penguin Classics black monochrome delivery. Sure those look good an a shelf. They’re good for OCD, because they’re all the same size. All the same color. They’re easy on the eyes. But something gets lost in the translation. They begin to blend. They become a concept. They are Steinbeck on a shelf, but they lose all personality. They lose their individuality.
A few days ago I picked up my first edition of “The Moon is Down”, which was first published in 1942. I put on gloves because I didn’t want to damage the pages. I felt strange doing this. I was in my home. It was my book. Why was I wearing gloves to read a book in my home? I was sure I could be careful enough with it that I wouldn’t damage it. So I took the gloves off and started to read. It was freeing in a way that I couldn’t describe.
But there was still that need to get stuff done. I had something I wanted to savor, and I could only think of what I wanted to read next. I felt an overwhelming melancholy because I realized that I wasn’t enjoying it like I should. Much like I was gulping down my expensive coffee that I carefully spend twenty five minutes every morning making, because I just needed the caffeine. I was missing something.
Yesterday I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I sat in my reading chair and I had The Moon is Down open in front of me, but I couldn’t focus on it. I took a deep sigh, reveling in the strange feeling of shame I was feeling, and I caught a familiar scent. It was the book. The indescribable scent of an old book. Remember that the book I was reading was published in 1942. The book in my hands was 78 years old. Something happens to books as they age that gives them a familiar scent. A scent that every book lover craves. I know there is a science behind it, and I can wager why, but I’ve never wanted to, because something about that scent elicits mystery. It elicits fantasy and memory. It represents hope.
I leaned in and took a deep breath, taking in the memory of the first time I found a Steinbeck book in the corner of a used book store in Seattle. I remember seeing a brownish/crimson cover. The title was “The Pearl”. The book was battered, but it was a price I could afford. I bought it.
I took another deep breath. It made me think of the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a mysterious library from my favorite book “The Shadow of the Wind”.
I took another deep breath and I thought about searching through old used book stores for copies of John Steinbeck books with my fiancee (now wife), as favors for attendees of our wedding.
I felt pressure release from the back of my head with every inhale. I felt my eyes relax. I felt my brain let go of some of those desires to just get stuff done.
To me, it was a figurative “stop and smell the roses” moment. But I don’t care about flowers. I care about books and emotion. This was the first time in quarantine that I let myself enjoy what I was doing.
Dont mis-understand. The point is not to say that I stopped working. The point is not to say “watch more tv and relax”. The point is to enjoy the work. The point is to have fun with what you are doing. The point is the journey, not the output. The point is, in 78 years someone will read a book and take a deep breath and be taken to a place of wonder. If I can enjoy what I’m doing, maybe. Just maybe. That deep breath can come from something that I have created. And I can give that solace, and nostalgia, and mystery, and fantasy, and hope, that I find now.