While loitering at my local paanwallah before the lockdown here in Karachi – it was a breezy evening and I needed to stock up on smokes – a young, trim man with a toothbrush moustache and weak chin behind me averred, “Ab BC, BC nahin raha.”
“Matlab?” his companion responded.
“B.C.: Before Corona.”
It was a thoughtful observation (if he meant what I think he meant): indeed, from a vantage in the future – one can only hope the future will afford some of us a vantage for retrospection – we might look back and characterise history as BC and AC: Before Corona and After Corona.
Literature seems a distant concern at this juncture; it’s all about survival now, not paan and smokes but the basics: daal, chawal. But after rations are had (perhaps, an extravagant slice of onion as an accompanying condiment), and after surveying the evening news, what to do? “The weather will continue bad,” wrote Henry Miller. “There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of change anywhere.”
Rations aside, we need some sort of intellectual sustenance to survive this Covid Era. I know something about self-isolation; as a novelist, I’ve mostly practiced it for about two decades. It can get really, really dark at night. But though I’ve found refuge in writing, in reading, I’ve never had to pose the following question to myself before: what the hell does one read in a pandemic?
If you ask me, avoid dystopian fiction – we’re already there – and self help-books; if you can’t learn to help yourself, you might not make it. Avoid Proust because it’s too damn long. If you ask me, mix it up: some fiction, some nonfiction, even some poetry, not necessarily in that order. If you haven’t read Elaine Pagel’s Gnostic Gospels, Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – relatively accessible treatises on where we have been and where we might be – go for it.
Pick up Naomi’s Lazard’s True Subject, perhaps the best translation of Faiz’s evocative verses yet. If you haven’t read aloud Poe’s “Raven” recently, this the time to do so. How does it begin? “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary/ Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…”
I escaped from Australia when this whole thing blew up – I was on the tail-end of my book tour – and met some fantastic novelists there: I’m reading Christos Tsioklas’ The Slap and it’s fantastic. There’s no other way to inhabit somebody’s head than reading a good novel and Tsioklas expertly allows us access to so many characters that you lose yourself. I also came across an animate Nigerian there. Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men is a memoir and treatise on identity that recalls Baldwin.
Lastly, if you haven’t read Zeitoun or Hologram for a King – I ran into Dave Eggers at the beginning of my tour in New York – you ain’t reading the most intelligent, prescient fiction coming out of America today.
You could also pick up The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack but don’t forgo rations for anybody – certainly not me.
HM Naqvi is the author of Home Boy and The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack.