“The primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission,” as Derek Thompson put it on Monday at The Atlantic  brings together for me an intriguing parallel between the COVID-19 pathogen, our experience of it, and literature.
Contrary to trends found in studies showing people have less time for audiobooks during the pandemic – because many are at home more and not alone on commutes or gym trips – I’ve been listening to more books. Masked breaks from the desk for me are more frequent, not less, and more necessary because of a heavier workload.
And something about the nearness of a voice in your ear, the digital equivalent of someone’s breath on your shoulder, can intensify the psychological proximity of reading–the author in your head, the voice against your face, dangerous in terms of a contagion, luxurious in terms of literature.
Thompson is right that the scientists’ shift from a focus on surface transmission to an aerosolized threat hasn’t been followed well by the public. But neither was the shift to an understanding of masks’ importance, either. As the medicos’ grasp has deepened, the population’s attention has waned (or has been politically diverted), and yet both cleaning! and masks! are part of the same evolving insight, even as so many folks are breathing heavily from their labors with sponges and soaps, “funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals,” as Thompson writes.
Don’t stop washing your hands, by the way. Keep things clean. You can still move virus to your face with your hands.
But the understanding now is that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is moving through the population on one of our most intimately shared features: breath. Talking. Whispering. Chatting someone up. Shouting someone down. At bars, outbreaks occur not because everyone is drinking after each other or pawing the same table top or bar surfaces but mainly because they sit close to each other to be heard over music, they raise their voices, they share breath. And they may be fully asymptomatic, too – the final terror.
Ironically, of course, the more isolated we become in order to keep from sharing each other’s breath, the more literature’s intimacy may mean to us.
A book is a thing of safe breath.
It’s better if it’s digital than print because other hands (and breaths) won’t have impacted its surfaces.
But it may be even better if rendered in audio, not only freeing you from the safety issues of surfaces but bringing the format into alignment with the communicative mechanism we need to avoid: speech.
My provocation for you today is not a test of your mask-wearing diligence, although I hope that you, too, have a growing collection of sturdy face coverings – we’re a long way from being done with this crisis.
Instead, I’d like to know if you find your writing to be responsive at this point to some concept of intimacy.
I find that I favor an almost conspiratorial tone in a narrator, reliable or otherwise. I want a voice that wants me. I want a story that arrives with eloquent urgency. I think there’s such a thing as narrative pressure and it feels good, like a breath on the ear.
I think I’ve mentioned in the past Laurie Anderson’s mesmerizing reading of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist . And Campbell Scott’s mastery of Henry Miller in his narration of Tropic of Capricorn . At the moment, I’m listening to Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism , read by the author herself as the perfect dinner companion for a quiet little place in Athens or Naples or Geneva. We would not want this exchange overheard by the “closet authoritarians” at the next table.
I’d like to think that I’m learning from this to write (and I mean this in a non-COVID way) a more fevered narrative. Something more propulsive and needy, something that fits in the ear with wireless cunning, a murmur of intelligence: a breath.
Do you hear this in your protagonist? Can you “test” your characters’ viability in terms of how they might sound in headphones – or feel in a close, hushed breath? And isn’t it interesting, that the very key to this deadly contagion’s spread can be something as seductive as a shared breath, an inside joke, a private whisper of courage?