MARCH 22, 2020
On March 15, 2020, the University of New Mexico Press released my A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, a collection of essays contemplating the collapse of industrial civilization. In the introduction to the book, I state that no one can predict the future. It’s getting hard enough to predict the present, I write, before launching into meditations on an unsustainable status quo.
The Press and I had planned a book tour in the American Southwest to introduce the book to independent bookstore owners, book clubs, and university philosophy and environmental science departments. Then came coronavirus. A few days before the book tour was to begin, schools and colleges closed. Bookstores cancelled readings. The AWP convention in San Antonio, where advance reader copies of my book had occupied a table in the UNM Press booth, had gone ahead on schedule — at the price of halved attendance, cancelled presentations, and the resignation of one of its co-directors, who had wanted to call the whole thing off.
The tour for my end-of-world book ended before it started, because of the end of a small and quite particular world, one inhabited by convivial book-lovers, environmental seminar students, wine-fueled discussion groups, and ordinary people looking for an ethical alternative to fighting over toilet paper in Walmart. I had written a funny-but-dark End Times book, which isn’t a well-known genre, but it seemed to be appropriate for a world getting more and more absurd and risky. I had also dealt—more seriously—with the grief that would attend the end of civilization. When we realized the book tour wasn’t going to happen, we got a glimpse of that grief.
At least until we realized we were being stupidly self-indulgent, and that most people in the world had worse problems, lots of them lethal or worse, and that quarantine, at least for a month or two, was going to look quite a lot like business as usual for us. We are backcountry skiing in the days, reading by the woodstove once it gets dark, and keeping track of a pandemic from a distance.
A cancelled book tour creates a hole in time. Time itself, which once was divided into units of human agency, tends toward eternity, where human agency is a dad-joke at best. You do what you can to fill the eternal spaces on the calendar. Cancelling hotel reservations becomes the occasion for sudden small friendships with the person who answers the phone, who tells you of other cancelled reservations, empty dining rooms and streets, and closed libraries. You promise to come back when this is over, realizing only after you’ve ended the call that you haven’t been there yet.
Books. There are a thousand or more in the house. It was a shock when you realized that you had more books than you could read in your life, a bigger shock when you realize coronavirus could shorten that life further. You read articles in which authors recommend books that first awakened wonder and joy in their lives. They’re going back to those books these days, finding strength in their vanished worlds and familial comfort.
It doesn’t work that way with you. And yet, by looking at the titles that jump out at you from the bookcase, you come up with a reading list to fill those lost evenings when you would have read end-of-the-world passages to hopeful and good-willed young people.
The first book I’ve started reading is The Plague. I’ve read it a half-dozen times, because I used to teach it to undergraduates, especially undergraduates deeply infatuated with French postmodernists. The Plague is not about the Nazis. It’s not about facing Evil. It’s not even about getting the first sentence of your novel right. It’s about being a doctor in a city where a communicable disease is killing the people around you, and doing what little you can to fight it. That’s the deep hidden meaning of The Plague, except it’s not hidden.
Camus helps reassure me that the coronavirus is a literal thing. We live in an enormously screwed-up world because people seize on the literal and turn it into metaphor, and then turn around and start treating the metaphor as though it were literal. That’s one of the reasons a horrible emptiness lurks on supermarket shelves where toilet paper used to be, or in your month-old portfolio statement from a few days before you were going to cash out but didn’t.
As the pandemic widens, we are going to experience grief we didn’t know we were capable of, but we will find strengths we didn’t know we had. With luck these strengths will let us reject the metaphors that have transformed a communicable microbe into something that can destroy economies, abrogate treaties and contracts, move people to divide humanity into Them and Us, and cause people to wake up in the middle of the night in paralyzing fear. Metaphors endure until they’re seen through. Pandemics have beginnings and ends that require more action.
Here’s my nano-survival advice: Be nice to the people you’re trapped indoors with. Inoculate yourself against metaphors. Read The Plague as a self-help manual. And don’t get too upset if your book tour is cancelled. It’s not the end of the world.
John Rember is the author of Sudden Death, Over Time; Coyote in the Mountains and Other Stories; Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archipelago; and Traplines: Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley. He and his wife, Julie, live in the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho.