Reading Picks for the Here and Now

Being a college student in the time of COVID-19 is draining, and it leaves us tired, stressed and generally unhappy with the state of things. As someone who struggles with depression and is undergoing major changes in my academic path and personal goals, COVID-19 has taken away any of the energy I had left and replaced it with questions and more stress. Especially in isolation, I have found myself with what often feels like an overwhelming amount of time to explore my own mind, usually while staring at the ceiling. Sometimes these moments only last a few seconds; other times, I find myself lost in thought about how I relate to the world for hours, wandering through my own daydreamed landscapes of islands and mountains. 

But what do we do when we find ourselves lost in our minds, unable to understand how we want to live and gain valuable life experience while stuck inside? I pick up a book; more specifically, I choose one of two important books that lead me to understand my environment better. When I catch myself staring at the ceiling, Aldous Huxley’s “Island” and W.G. Sebald’s “Rings of Saturn” are the two books I go back to time and time again. Both of these books have been given to me by people I know to understand themselves and their places in the world at least slightly more than I do. I trust them to draw my eyes down from the ceiling and into the pages of my new favorite books.

“Island,” the utopian antithesis of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” explores the life-changing experience of journalist Will Farnaby when he inadvertently lands on the fictional island of Pala, a place where the mynah birds remind people to pay attention to the “here and now.” A rightfully cynical man from London, Farnaby finds Pala to be a completely foreign place — a melding of eastern and western practices resulting in a well-adjusted and  almost entirely peaceful society. We witness his mindset shift and an incredible newfound acceptance of his own past life experiences. Will Farnaby is a lonely outsider accepted in a place that can teach him more than he ever knew he could learn, and I believe reading this in a time of great world change and social isolation is something from which everyone could benefit. 

This book was recommended to me by another English student in March before everything really started to spiral, and I have read it at least three times since then. While I was in the throws of upending my academic path and struggling through some of the worst depression I have ever experienced, “Island” led me to find joy in not knowing exactly what was coming next. I read this book originally over our two-week spring break when we thought we may be back in Chapel Hill by April. During that time, I read Will Farnaby’s experience as my own. I went through an intense series of realizations in my life as I  plunged into the completely new reality of attending college from my childhood bedroom and being an adult in a city I had only experienced as a child. The journey taken by Farnaby in this book helped me to find my way through academia and finally settle on a course of study, even though I did not know what that course of study had in store. 

The next time I read “Island” was during my self-isolation due to COVID-19. I tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-September, and I found myself alone in my apartment, struggling to cope with school, illness and uncertainty all at once. On day three, I picked up the book and sat down to read it again. It was a rainy afternoon, and I put on classical music and read through the sunset and the late evening until I eventually fell asleep, finishing it over the subsequent two days. “Island” has become my comfort book of choice since the first time I read it back in March, and I hope it can offer others a new perspective of living within and fully experiencing the unknown.

In a similar way, “Rings of Saturn” is about a man who is generally alone. Sebald writes the stream of consciousness experienced by an unnamed narrator over a long walk on the English coast, exploring things that seem random and unrelated. The sequence of topics is dictated purely by the things and people this unnamed narrator comes across, in the same way our thoughts are normally influenced by the barista we see every day or an interesting professor we see walking by. Called “a hybrid of a book—fiction, travel, biography, myth, and memoir” by the New York Times, “Rings of Saturn” offers an ounce of normalcy as we are all lacking the small and often most beautiful parts of living as social beings. 

Recommended to me by my high school English and Composition teacher in June, “Rings of Saturn” was the breath of fresh air I needed when trying to understand what I was missing so much during our nationwide shutdown. I have read it all the way through once already and have begun my second read in the past few weeks. “Rings of Saturn” helped me realize that I missed seeing others who frequented the same places, with whom I shared quaint smiles and warm feelings. I believe we all take for granted our favorite coffee shop table, the barista that knows our order and the people we walk past every day on our way to class. A book that wanders and stretches out small connections to mean so much more, “Rings of Saturn” gave me back a piece of my pre-COVID-19 life. 

These two books have continued to offer me extreme comfort, a simultaneous experience of escaping my own mind while also confronting it in ways I had not before. Isolation is and most likely always will be challenging. Through these two novels, I have found isolation to be a place in which I can grow, change and feel more fully than I ever knew to be possible. We are quite literally living in revolutionary times, hoping for and working toward fundamental changes in the fabric of our world while still being physically separated from the people and experiences that tend to mean so much. It all can be incredibly overwhelming. 

Next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling for longer than a minute or two, pick up a book like “Island” or “Rings of Saturn.” Allow yourself to feel a connection with a place or character that is also going through a life-altering experience, just not as close to home.


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