In our new series Quarantine Reads, writers present the books they’re finally making time for and consider what it’s like to read them in this strange moment.
I started reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a prismatic, nightmarish work of speculative fiction, in New York City a couple weeks ago, when the coronavirus had just begun to spread into the West. Italy had fallen and the threat in the United States was imminent, but the real panic and anxiety still hadn’t sunk in. Stubbornly, and against better judgment, I decided to go through with my plans to take a three-week trip to Japan. I continued reading Dhalgren on my way to Tokyo on March 14. As I was reading on the nearly empty plane, I kept looking down at my hands, getting up, washing them, until they were dry and cracked and my knuckles started bleeding, and by the time I disembarked it looked like I’d been in a fistfight. Dhalgren has been my only real traveling companion this week: gently purring in my hands with the landscape tilting outside the window of the Shinkansen; in the coffee shops of Ginza and Shinjuku, wiped with sanitizer each time, carefully, front and back; and in my lap on a park bench overlooking a river, across which stands the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the battered dome of a ruined building.
The German-language writer Elias Canetti—most famous for his book Crowds and Power—deeply admired Dr. Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, a powerful and lucid account of the days and weeks following the Hiroshima atomic bombing. In a short essay from 1971, Canetti wrote of Dr. Hachiya’s profoundly vivid hellscape, of the uncertainty each new day brought to the doctor’s treatment of victims (while trying to understand what was happening to his own body), and of the doctor’s narration of the ever-shifting new realities of something completely unknown. As Canetti writes, “In the hardship of his own condition, among dead or injured people, the author tries to piece the facts together; with increasing knowledge, his conjectures change, they turn into theories requiring experiment.”