How Agatha Christie, Frederick Douglass and Albert Camus are getting us through this

Updated 9:17 AM ET, Sat May 9, 2020

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(CNN)In his 1948 novel "The Plague" -- sales of which have ticked upward during the Covid-19 crisis - French author Albert Camus reflects on the nature of outbreak and its relation to the human capacity for surprise: "Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet, always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."

What stands out to me about this passage is not its apt assessment that many human beings are in denial about the perils of existence. What leaps out is the acknowledgment that whenever plague (in Camus' novel, a metaphor for fascism, tragically literal in our own moment) strikes, it always produces a feeling of sudden awareness that we aren't ready to face the danger. The "blue sky" out of which catastrophe falls is one that always seems bluer, more intense, and one that we might feel that we need new eyes to see and understand for what it really is.
In a recent op-ed, poet Tess Taylor argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered our understanding of time, that level we use to balance the distance between the triage of right now and the entrenched sweep of history (with all its wars and plagues). Where can we possibly turn when that balance is shattered by cataclysmic disruption? If we need new eyes to see how blue the sky is, now that it has fallen on our heads, where can we turn to find perspective?
We turn toward the page, Taylor suggested. We included in her op-ed a call for people to share what they're reading during the pandemic and why, and your responses were overwhelming in sheer volume and variety. One reader put it bluntly: "Books really do help you forget the craziness and sadness that surrounds us."
At a time when Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Instagram Live and other streaming and video platforms are keeping millions of us above water, books have also become our lifeline -- a form of immersion in the reality of contagion from a safe distance, a coping mechanism for escape, a place of comfort and familiarity in re-reading a loved story or a space for adventures far and wide when we cannot leave our homes. As Dan Jameson, a bookseller from Silver City, New Mexico, wrote to us: "Essays of the Southwest with descriptions of enormous vistas can help to soothe claustrophobia." Randy U. of Monroeville, Pennsylvania, expressed it this way: "Batman had his cave, Superman had the Fortress of Solitude, and I have my little den to escape from the world now and then and lose myself in a good book."
Some are, in fact, going for shock therapy by reading Camus -- in the case of Guy M. of Silver Spring, Maryland, alternating it with Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" for a "bit of literary whiplash." But a lot of people are reaching for "The Plague" and other works that explicitly address disease and pandemic, whether fictional or real. Among them are: Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year" (1722), an account of the bubonic plague in London in 1665; Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron," a 14th-century collection of novellas about the Black Death; John Barry's "The Great Influenza" (2004), an account of the 1918 flu pandemic; Emily St. John Mandel's pandemic novels "Station Eleven" (2015) and recently, "The Glass Hotel"; Max Brooks's apocalyptic novel "World War Z" (2006); "Severance," Ling Ma's 2018 work of satirical science fiction; and Stephen King's "The Stand" (1978), a dystopian novel about a virus that destroys most of humanity.