On Reading Old Books to Escape the Anxieties of 2020

There’s something about old books, especially fiction, that transport me to a world where I feel safe. This has been the case lately, as I’ve jumped into the classics to escape this year’s anxieties.

2020 has been a wild year, and we still have three months left. I won’t rehash what’s made it so absurd. We all know why. Rachel loves to collect memes online and text them to me. The meme-creation industry (if such a thing exists) is having a banner year!

When I woke up this morning, I checked the New York Times (NYT) website and discovered President Trump and the First Lady have tested positive for COVID-19. I immediately closed the browser.

Then I picked up an old book that gives me much comfort: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. While I’m not really a practicing Christian, there’s something about this classic devotional that makes me feel at home.

Maybe it’s because it reminds me of my childhood and the few years I spent in Catholic school. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of my great-grandmothers, who were both devout Catholics.

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

The Imitation of Christ is a strange book to me. It’s a heavy form of ascetic Christianity published in the 15th century by a pious priest named Thomas à Kempis. I don’t take much of what is said very seriously, but the words seem to soothe me.

The words remind me of Sunday dinners at Great Grams’ house in South Philly. They remind me of her setting the dinner table hours in advance and cooking a pot of gravy all day. They remind me of the picture of Pope John Paul II she displayed prominently in the dining room.

I’ve also been reading Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. The novel was published in 1913, and it centers on the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her son. Paul Morel (the son) is driven to both flee and cling to his overbearing mother throughout the book.

Lastly, I’ve also been reading some of Søren Kierkegaard’s work. The Danish philosopher wrote mostly about his labored and angsty view of Christianity, such as in The Sickness unto Death. Many people consider Kierkegaard to be the first existential philosopher.

What do all these books have in common? For one, they’re old. Kierkegaard wrote in the 19th century, The Imitation of Christ is from medieval times, and Sons and Lovers is from the early 20th century.

All these books deal with heavy topics: theology, religion, philosophy, dysfunctional family relationships. But there’s something about the archaic writing styles, the settings, almost the dust I can smell from the pages that helps me escape. (Note: I’m reading a few on Kindle, so there’s no literal dust – it’s more of a metaphor!).

I read a headline in NYT today we’ve been caught in a “psychic doom-spiral” in 2020. That’s a good way of putting it.

I’ve blogged about the political aspects of what’s going on before, and I may do it again. But it’s starting to feel futile. Increasingly, I’m avoiding the “disaster reporting” we’re inundated with at the moment.

There’s a fire burning, and some people seem drawn to it. It’s similar to when you’re driving on the highway and traffic slows to a crawl. About fifteen minutes later, you discover the reason for the slowdown is because there was a terrible accident and people are “rubber-necking.”

Well, I’m a little tired of watching the carnage. D.H. Lawrence, Kierkegaard, and Kempis feel like better companions to me right now.

(Cover Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

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