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How to Read During a Pandemic

How to Read During a Pandemic

written by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke


I read an article recently about how hard it is to read books right now. OK, I didn’t read the article; I read the headline. I nodded to myself and kept skimming social media, intending to go back to it later, but never got around to it. My brain, and probably yours, is overloaded. Between the increasingly dire news and the polarized perspectives on how to respond, working from home and trying to adapt everything we do to new formats with new rules for not transmitting the coronavirus, it is honestly very difficult to follow even the most well-written books. Except: I think I’ve discovered a loophole, quite by accident, or maybe it was by deep-seated memory. 


I have loved Jane Austen’s books for decades. Her six completed novels are foundational to my taste in fiction, with quick wit and the intricacies of relationships whether or not big events occur. There exists a lot of Austen “fan fiction” out there taking tangents from the original plotlines, of varying quality. It was my good fortune to receive one of the very best examples of Austen fan fiction, riffing off my favorite of the six novels, in the mail from my mother during the pandemic. Once I started reading, I could not put it down. Five hundred pages went by in a flash, and I had the delightful sensation of being immersed in another world: feelings, mind and all. I came back changed, remembering what it is like to not be frazzled by information overload, and how at the core, even the world-shaking forces like racism or pandemic are dealt with at the household level in the interactions between us. My spouse has been re-reading to our children as well, and just yesterday they completed the entire series of the Chronicles of Narnia, for the second time. “How different it sounded this time,” he remarked, “because of what’s going on.” The kids seemed engrossed, and remembered minute details from the earliest books read months ago. On these stories, which resonated before our attention became so fragmented by living during a pandemic, we are somehow able to concentrate. 


What if the books we already have allowed to shape and interpret us, offer not only respite but meaning in a way we are uniquely capable of receiving while the rest of life is deeply unsettling? I wonder if our  favorite stories or passages from Scripture would offer the same stability and insight? Just about every time we read from the Bible, it reveals a different word to us, since we approach it from a different point in our lives. Yet we all have our favorite stories or verses, which speak to us louder than others. Like our favorite books, we also know how this one ends: the new life after death, a new heaven and a new earth despite everything we have been through. Our old favorites are available to us for remembering who we are, and realizing how we are different yet the same in this new context. In the case of Scripture, we are reminded that we are unequivocally children of God. 


Perhaps I am not capable of reading to learn new things right now. My mind is mush, as previously established. I am, however, capable of remembering old stories that are somehow central or foundational to me. And maybe that is what I need, and what the world needs of me: to remember what makes me tick, gives me delight, and to be moved to hang onto those things in the face of great change. We do not know how this pandemic will end for our closest loved ones, our congregations or the world around us. Yet we know how much we are loved and how we are called to treat the most vulnerable, the ones Jesus referred to as his “children.” The challenge around us is more than enough for our minds to handle. We will meet it by remembering who we are.   


Repeating Psalm 23 while tuning out everything else 24 hours a day would be escapism. But to read and ponder what it means now – in an ICU at capacity, in the midst of a social-distanced protest, in the midst of grief when we cannot all gather physically – that re-reading reveals a new word for today within the familiar phrases. We remember in order to move forward as the children God has formed us to be.  


Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an interim pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN. Her first book, “Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God”  is available for pre-order from Church Publishing, Inc, releasing in September 2020. 




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