I came back from the AWP national conference (10,000 people) sick. Fever, sore throat, loss of voice, cough. And it’s only gotten worse since I got home. So I am once more in that strange miasma of illness.
Fever always gives me the oddest dreams. Wandering through maze-like structures with people I hardly know—certainly not well enough for them to show up in my dreams. Responsibilities for large amorphous projects of which I didn’t know I was in charge. Grown children and aging brothers and sister all little ones again, all at the same time and my responsibility. Dead parents and grandparents alive and young as I never knew some of them to be. Important insights and realizations that drift apart like smoke in my hands as I wake.
Waking life isn’t much better. Muzzy with medications and voiceless. The dog knows something is wrong and whines around me, licking at my knees and hands. It doesn’t take long for the computer to take my headache and neck pain to new heights, so work on that is limited. Reading is the one occupation that doesn’t hurt or require more concentration or motor skills than I have right now.
Always, reading has been my salvation in times of illness, injury, and overwhelming pain. I turn to it eagerly, knowing that I will step out of my aching skin and into someone else’s for the duration of a good book. I remember a back injury so severe that even morphine couldn’t touch the pain. One leg was paralyzed, and I was in a wheelchair, waiting for emergency surgery with no guarantees that I’d be able to walk again when it was finished. I couldn’t sit, walk, lie down, sleep. Books (Janet Evanovich and C.J. Cherryh) got me through that period, waiting to have my back surgically reconstructed. I’ve had pneumonia countless times in my life, and that’s when I turn to Dame Agatha Christie, especially the Miss Marples and Ariadne Olivers, and to Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that gem of a novel with Oxford as its centerpiece.
Once when hospitalized and on lots of IV medicines, I re-read David Copperfield with such intensity that it felt as if I were living the story at the same time that I was marveling at the beauties of Dickens’ prose. No graduate literature seminar has ever given me that kind of rigorous grasp on a book.
I have a towering To Be Read stack of books, some of which I’m to review for various places. I set the review copies aside. They need my everyday brain and not this gauzy thing I’m floating on through these days of illness. Still, I’m starting to make a dent in the others in the stack.
When people ask me what novels could possibly be worth—why don’t I spend my life doing important things to help humankind?—I remember a time of agony and send a little prayer of gratitude to comic mystery writer Evanovich and fantasy/science fiction writer Cherryh for getting me through overwhelming pain and fear and out the other side. I only hope my own books will do the same for someone else in such pain and fear and trouble.
What about you? Are books your help in times of illness and pain? Which ones do you turn to?