Comfort Books: Social Connection in a time of Physical Distancing

Michaela Gaziano
Michaela is a second year MPP student and co-chair of Women in Power, a student run organization at the Harvard Kennedy School

Over the past three weeks, as I’ve become intimately familiar with the lovely yet lonely four walls of my Cambridge bedroom, I’ve been mourning the sudden loss of what was the most transformative part of my HKS experience: you. 

I think what I miss the most is the casual run-ins. I’ve missed catching up in the cafeteria line with a professor; the coffee plans that came from a chance encounter on the social steps with someone from class I wanted to know better; that I could ask my cohort WhatsApp group for Advil and someone would drop it in my lap within minutes. I miss the rushed meet-up with a friend or a crush in those hectic 15 minutes between class to exchange a snack or a story or even just a hug. I even miss the library and all the friendships we built in those deliriously tired moments on the chairs just outside its doors, when whoever was walking by would seamlessly join in the silly banter. 

The casual friendliness and unexpected joy of these run-ins built the web of interdependence that defines our HKS community, and it’s what I am now craving. But to my delight, I’ve found there are still ways to continue this: I get my fix when I am assigned to a Zoom breakout room with someone I wanted to get to know—or better yet, a close friend who is now across the world or just isolating down the street. Retired WhatsApp groups from some event long ago have re-awakened and stayed active with ridiculous pictures capturing life in quarantine. The Zoom birthday parties! And everyone is downloading apps (like Houseparty or Marco Polo) that encourage random interaction. The comfort of seeing these familiar faces, so close yet so far, has rejuvenated me and reminded me that it wasn’t the physical space that was bringing us together. 

And then I had another unexpected encounter: an HKS friend sent me a book. It arrived one rainy day on my doorstep – a delightful surprise from the outside world. Every night since, it has provided me with a peaceful 30 minutes of escape before bed. Physically alone in my room, yet socially connected through a book to a friend who now lives on the other side of the country.

I turn to books in times of stress. There’s nothing like diving into another person’s life when you’re worried about your own; we can’t leave our homes but we can be transported through our books. 

Craving more encounters, I asked our professors and classmates to share what books are bringing them comfort. This list provides a selection of whatever you need: inspiration, poetry, fiction, feel-good, mourning. 

If you’re ordering books, try and support your local independent bookstore. Bookshop is an online bookstore that is supporting independent bookstores. Select a bookstore you’d like to support. Happy reading! 

 

Professor Tim McCarthy: 

In these uncertain and unprecedented times, where physical distancing is now a mandate, I am reading as much as possible—to educate myself, to stay engaged in the world, and also to escape it whenever I need to do so. Right now, I’m reading the late Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019), and I find myself elevated by her unrivaled eloquence and uncompromising truth. 

 

I’ve also been revisiting interviews from the ACT-UP Oral History Project—the visionary video archive created by my friends Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard—to remind myself of the prophetic wisdom and persistent activism of my queer siblings who endured the terror of the AIDS epidemic with fabulous love and fierce resistance. Life and death are always intertwined, and these two sources are wellsprings of inspiration for me right now.

 

Professor Erica Chenoweth:

My recommendation is “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a timeless piece of writing that recovers the incredible moments of strength and creativity that can emerge in times of crisis. Solnit is masterful in helping us to see how ordinary people have always met unexpected challenges by working together for mutual aid, common purpose, and political transformation. This message is eternal, but it’s especially relevant to the current moment. As an added bonus, she’s a terrific writer, and it’s a quick read that you’ll want to return to again.

 

Professor Zoe Marks: 

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Eduardo Galeano: If you’re looking for safe harbors or at least literary lighthouses of humanity, Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors. It’s really unlike any other book I’ve read and I’ll probably pull it out tomorrow to look for some gems to keep things in perspective. It’s the history of the world, all in tiny vignettes.

 

 

Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles: I bought this book as a reward/inspiration after workshopping my own book (about the processes that sustain civil war) last month. It’s creative nonfiction, which sometimes feels closer to how my brain thinks than does traditional academic prose. She weaves together stories of people, photography, religion, silences and traumas of war, and more. I already dog-eared p. 7: “follow the writing”, she said to herself in a dream.

 

[Homie], Danez Smith: You know I couldn’t not recommend some poetry! Oh my heavens this book. Everyone should buy it for the first poem alone, get lost in the true title page, and then revel in the bittersweet abundance of Smith’s invocations of community, friendship, and love blooming through the cracks of our inequitable society. (Plus, they shout-out takis and flaming hot cheetos, two of my favorite quarantine snacks!).

 

Professor Jeffrey Seglin: 

Robert Caro’s Working, is his recent book on writing. In it, he writes about his approach to researching, interviewing, and writing books about Robert Moses and a yet-to-be-complete multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. His very short chapter, “Tricks of the Trade,” talks about the importance of learning to shut up when you are interviewing people, if you expect to get anything of value from them.

 

 

Two by Jacques Derrida: his The Politics of Friendship and The Work of Mourning. The latter consists of essays, eulogies, condolence letters, and other pieces written after well-known friends of Derrida died. The former is about the binds that tie us together as friends. Hua Hsu wrote a lovely essay in The New Yorker recently about The Politics of Friendship which led me to pick it up again. I’m reading The Work of Mourning because, well, just because. 

 

The fourth is the pick-up-and-put-down-regularly book. It’s a copy of the first volume of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems. Her “The Summer Day,” which ends with the lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” slays me every time. 

 

 

Sakina Haider, MPP2: 

 If there is one thing that this crisis has taught me, it is that planning can be a futile exercise. That when you cannot plan for the future, you learn to see the present with renewed, focused clarity. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, philosopher Alan Watts draws on teachings from Eastern philosophy and religion to argue that when we spend too much time trying to anticipate the future, or lamenting the past, we can miss the pleasures of our presence. For me, much of the anxiety of the crisis is rooted in its inherent uncertainty. This book is a comforting reminder that rather than focusing on what may or may not happen, it is important to appreciate and fully exist in the present.

 

Bonus, from me: 

A Gentleman in Moscow: Some heartwarming fiction set in the Metropol hotel in Moscow during the first half of the 20th century. The endearing main character, Count Rostov, is under house arrest—he never leaves the hotel throughout the book (sounds familiar). Yet he finds creative ways to make it an adventure. While I admit quarantine in a bougie hotel isn’t exactly relatable, the descriptions of the hotel are so detailed you’ll feel like you’re there—and there is something incredibly comforting about good fiction right now.

 


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