Anne-Catherine Schaaf ’22
What’s been your quarantine hobby? Like so many others, I’ve taken up baking, catching up on Netflix, and going on long walks. I also feel like training a quarantine puppy would be an excellent hobby, yet unfortunately my parents don’t agree. The hobby I always return to, however, quarantine or non-quarantine, is reading. With so many of us spending long hours in our rooms, I thought I would share a few of my favorite picks for those quiet periods when you physically can’t look at screens anymore. Then I realized a thousand Google pages worth of those recommendation lists already existed. So, instead: the anti-recommendations. Excellent books that you definitely shouldn’t feel bad about not reading right now. Of course, in my subjective opinion, these are all great books, but all of these books in some way deal with themes of isolation and enclosure, and have a sense of looming dread. Not what we need right now. As far as I can tell from the video emailed to us students, the Worcester Holiday Inn Express doesn’t have menacingly patterned yellow wallpaper, but the general advice still stands. So read these warnings, and happily put these books on the someday list, no hard feelings at all.
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A short and increasingly creepy novel you’ve probably heard of, but still should read anyway. It’s an excellent novel that still contributes to how we think about women, the concept of hysteria, illness, and forced confinement. But don’t read it while you’re stuck in a cramped space unsure of whether or not you might be seriously ill. I would recommend waiting till you can read it outdoors in some blissfully vaccinated summer, no matter how far in the future that may be.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
This is not an action-packed novel. In fact, the dreamy somnolent plot revolves around the narrator’s attempts to avoid action. Ottessa Moshfegh, through her description of her charmingly horrible characters and their foibles, manages to perfectly evoke a mood that many of us are feeling right now, even if most of us weren’t alive during the time the story takes place in. Rest and relaxation are certainly still important as we begin the new semester, but the lengths Moshfegh’s heroine goes to achieve them lead me to suggest skipping this one for now.
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
In my opinion, this novel contains perhaps the most evil character in the entire corpus of English literature. You probably know someone just like her. And if you’re quarantined with such a person, then this piece of fiction offers no escape at all. In summary, a poor young woman is invited to live at her relatives house, where she finds intrigue, small mindedness and betrayal, all within the bounds of Regency decorum. Jane Austen is as witty and brilliant as ever in this novel, which is an underrated favorite, but now is just not the best time for it. May I suggest Emma instead?
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
This novel is the most out of place among this crowd. Antoinette, the lead character, is heiress to a lush Jamaican plantation, and as a white lady of leisure, has little to do but enjoy herself. She can’t enjoy herself for long though, as the sense of dread slowly builds, and it becomes clear that past sins must face new evils head on. Rhys is a master of weaving together the environment with the psychological state of her characters, and of course, if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you already know that it’s not going to end well.
The Turn of The Screw, Henry James
With every chapter in this Gothic novella, the muted screech of nails on a chalkboard reverberated in my head. Like other novels on this list, our protagonist is trapped in a lonely location with what appear to be evil forces threatening her. Or perhaps the evil is simply inside her. It’s hard to tell, the unspoken horrors weigh on the mind of both character and reader, and we all should simply set this aside and go find something with a happier ending.
Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
Understandably, when celebrities post tearful Instagram videos crying about how difficult lockdown is with their infinity pool in the background, they are widely mocked. Did you happen to see any housekeepers lurking in the background though with haughty and secretive smiles? Or husbands with mysterious backstories? We’d all like to be quarantined in a mansion, but as the unnamed protagonist discovers, there can be some serious downsides.
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
If these past recommendations have convinced you that you can’t trust mansions, this should convince you not to trust private islands. Agatha Christie is always a delightful way to spend the time, and this is one of her best if you are just beginning to explore her oeuvre, but with its themes of strangers trapped on a lonely isle with a murderer, it’s probably best to put this one aside for now, or it will probably inspire you to start asking your roommates too many personal questions.
Room, Emma Donoghue
Finally, Room. This might be the one, more than any other, to avoid right now. This is a difficult novel in the best of times. Our five-year-old protagonist, Jack, describes, but can’t quite understand the horrible prison he is in, and his innocence makes the horror that much more shocking to more worldly readers. Even with an ultimately hopeful conclusion, not to mention Emma Donoghue’s gripping narrative, this is another novel of confinement and isolation that I don’t really want to look at right now.
I hope this list can be helpful as we wile away the hours in our dorm room. Quarantine won’t last forever, and these books will be there for us when it is. In the meantime, let’s all give ourselves a break and just read something a little more cheerful. Like Emma.