By Rebecca Martinez
The pandemic has impacted our lives in countless ways, but it has undoubtedly made us think about how we’re spending our time at home and what we’re doing to keep busy. Reading books and engaging with literature has been a haven for so many of us during this time when we may feel isolated. This sentiment of using books to connect with others is especially true for Bev Parker and Susan Friedlander.
Bev Parker lives in Chicago and loves to read. She is a member of numerous discussion-based book clubs, including the one created in her neighborhood, two book clubs at her church, the League of Women Voters book club, and the Morton Arboretum book club. In these groups, Parker has found herself reading all kinds of books, from subjects about racism and immigration to biographies and historical fiction.
“Something I’ve been gravitating toward is reading about white privilege. Ever since Black Lives Matter appeared on the scene, it’s been much more prominent,” Parker says. Some of the relevant books she has read in regards to this time of racial justice in our country’s history are White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
“I also enjoy reading books by Marie Benedict, she writes historical fiction about women who aren’t as well-known. One of her books I liked was called Carnegie’s Maid and was about Andrew Carnegie[‘s maid.] This woman may not have existed, but the author saw a hole in his life where there might have been someone like this. These books are interesting because they give you a view to history that you don’t know about because there’s not much recorded about these women.”
Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict
Moreover, the power of books has brought Parker support throughout her life. “My toughest time,” Parker says, “was dealing with breast cancer three times. I found a lot of comfort in books that helped me understand what was going on, not only emotionally, but medically.”
Parker’s experience with breast cancer and interest in books as resources even helped her choose to write her dissertation on the topic. She received a doctorate in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As she is constantly reading, Parker uses the free publication available at her library, BookPage, to choose books to add to her list. Admittedly, placing books on hold at the library is how Parker goes through her reading list. She says this helps with the cost of reading so many books and the inevitable attachment she tends to form with them that makes books impossible to let go of.
With laughter, Parker remembers a rereading mishap, “In the book group I’m not in anymore, but was in for twenty-five years, we read Plainsong by Kent Haruf. In the end, after we discussed it, one of the members said, “I think we read this one before.” And because I keep a list of all the books from the book group, I found that seven or eight years before that, we had read that same book, and no one remembered it. I knew I had watched the movie, so I knew the story of it, but I forgot I had read it before, which was funny.”
Susan Friedlander, the author of Polly, a book about her sister that lived with severe disabilities, also lives in Chicago and has a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University.
Like Parker, Friedlander enjoyed reading Nancy Drew as a child too, and she speaks with fondness as she looks back on the variety of books she once loved. “Other than my sister, I was an only child, and I was always a reader. Growing up, I remember reading all of Hemingway and all of Steinbeck and all of the [classic] authors,” Friedlander says.
Now, Friedlander reads escape literature and mystery books like the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd. She is a part of a book club where they read any and all books that the members find interesting, through which she says, “I have read some very good books that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Friedlander praises the convenience of Zoom for connecting her with her book club during the pandemic in the safety of her own home, adding, “I think Zoom, actually, is terrific because a number of [book club members] are now living in other parts of the country. Now because of Zoom, everyone can be there.”
Outside of book club, the types of books that Friedlander finds comfort in are self-help books, which she leans on whenever she is going through a difficult time and is really “frightened or scared.” Friedlander continues, “This was true after [my first husband] died. I remember if I was just feeling lonely, and the kids were all out, sometimes I would drive out to the mall. I remember driving out one night around eight o’clock… and just looking for some kind of self-help book. They make you feel a little bit less alone for the moment when you are alone. Anyone can be alone.”
Friedlander discusses a book she has read five times, the coming of age novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. “It is the only book where I’ve finished it and started it over. It wasn’t that I loved the whole book, but there was something about that book that reached somewhere in me, I don’t know how or why. I recommend it though.”
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Interestingly, a book in particular that Friedlander has reread in the last year and found enlightening is Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, where a small town in England shuts down due to the Great Plague of London sweeping the region during the seventeenth century. “I read it years ago, and it stayed with me,” Friedlander says, noting the comparisons she has made between the COVID-19 pandemic and the book, recognizing how fortunate we should be that we have gone as long as we have without a deadlier disease.
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
“I’ve read more because I’m always home,” Friedlander says happily of her reading habits, though she hopes to have the opportunity to write more in the near future.
Reading for entertainment, knowledge, community, or even comfort to get us through this tough time should be treasured and encouraged. While it is understandable to fixate on the many things we may not be completed while we’re staying safe and staying home, it is just as important to remind ourselves to enjoy the simpler things that bring fulfillment to our lives, like reading.