As we all find different ways to apportion our socially distanced time, large swathes of typical activity are suddenly impenetrable. Friends of mine have recounted struggling with their readerly focus in isolation. Struggling with turning off their news-devouring, social-media trawling, sourdough-cultivating, anxiety-generating brains sufficiently to focus on the page in front of them.
It’s hard to adequately express how relieved I am that, as it has been so often in my life, reading has remained a solace and a refuge.
I’ve relished the extra hours that restricted movement afford each day. New Hilary Mantel? Gobbled it up. Patrick Radden Keefe’s epic account of Northern Ireland, Say Nothing? Couldn’t get enough. Laura Jean McKay’s blistering novel of pandemic and the burdens of language? Put The Animals in that Country on your to-read list as a priority! Between work and home-schooling and existential dread and my new hobby of planning future meals while eating current meals, iso-life is defined by the omnipresence of a book. Thank god.
That great chronicler of the joys and consolations of reading, Alberto Manguel, emphasised the role in reading to help us articulate the world: “Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.”
By that logic, if our reading arms us with a vocabulary to make sense of what is around us, the final act of reading is sharing it in discussion with others. If a book moves us, and there’s nobody to discuss it with over too many glasses of wine, does it make a sound?
That’s why we’re going to gather together and share our reading. On Friday 15 May, Guardian Australia invites you to join us in the ultimate act of collective reading: a book club, over Zoom, in partnership with ideas platform Australia @ Home. The time is right to discuss, to disagree and to dismember the books that are accompanying us through this remarkable time.
And to get things started for our club we’ve chosen Julia Baird’s new, beautiful consideration of the things that glow through the murk: Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder and Things that Sustain You When the World Goes Dark. As Bridie Jabour noted in these pages, the timeliness of this release is irresistible, but this work of serious and thoughtful reflection is an excellent starting point for many reasons.
Here’s a taste from the book:
What is crucial for calm is not just a capacity to empty minds of nonsense but to also fill them with good and marvellous things … What if we can fight distraction not by emptying our minds but by focusing them, so that the mind becomes mind-full, and we find focus, absorption, immersion in something other than ourselves.
Prescience, or at the very least on-point timing, isn’t always a boon in the world of publishing: get it wrong and your book lands in that terrible uncanny valley where oversaturation meets fatigue; worse still it seems opportunistic and half-baked. But a book such as this one – one that aims to provoke delight and wonder and comfort, that is at its heart trying to find answers or modes of connection, or light – is of the moment in the best possible way. And in her search for illumination, Baird wends her way through science writing, social history, memoir, even elements of self-help: she has a crack at everything. (That’s how the light gets in.)
And so we gather. Join us! From the comfort of your own device, in your best socially distanced finery, BYO nibblies and wine and anxiety about the legitimacy of your response to the book.
We’ll be taking questions from you, and joined by Julia herself: to discuss the glowing delights of Phosphorescence; how, why and what we read; what we share with one another and how we make sense of the world.
There are no wrong answers. No guilty pleasures. Just a bunch of readers coming together to share the glow of the page with one another. I can’t wait.
Guardian Australia’s first book club will be held on Friday 15 May at 1pm, over Zoom, hosted by Australia At Home. To register click here, or stay tuned for the video highlights.
• Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence is out now via HarperCollins (AU$27.75)
• If you have a question you’d like Michael to ask Julia Baird, add it to the comments below – or join us on Zoom.