Blog / / What to read during (self)isolation?
What to read during (self)isolation?
Branko Rosić writer and Deputy Editor in Chief of the weekly news magazine ‘Nedeljnik’
What to read during (self)isolation?
When I was a kid, back then in the eighties, people had already been annoyed with the war and post-war generation with their never-ending stories how it was in the times of their crises. So, in my earliest childhood, when I couldn’t grasp a thing, Đorđe Balašević in his number ‘Računajte na nas’ (Count on Us) addressed those older folks always talking about crises. He sang that although his (young, Đole’s) generation liked rock music, it was also familiar with those revolutionary – war years, which also belonged to crisis genre. Before starting to write this text, while a cursor was winking at me from a white, blank Word page, I caught myself in the thought that I, as well, should start with my personal crises. I remember the first ones now as already belonging to some ancient times. For instance, petrol shortages in SFRY, and introduction of even / odd plate numbers traffic rules, specifying who is not allowed to drive on a particular day, either those with even or odd plate numbers. I recall a neighbor of mine, a biker who used to be a real two-wheeler ‘junkie’ and his troubles to live through a weekend when he couldn’t take the motorcycle out of his garage and had to abstain, for two days, from driving along road flyovers, underpasses, curves… But, I don’t remember that he read any books to overcome the crisis. And, coming to think of it, two days are a very short period for serious literature, so during such two days he spent time mostly smoking, but considering that this is a website of a pharmaceutical company’s foundation, it would be probably wiser to say that during such two days, he listened to the radio and records. Those petrol and coffee shortage crises were, nevertheless, short-lasting. And, people could read, for example, Jack Kerouac and his masterpiece ‘On the Road’ at the time of petrol crisis, when it was not possible to drive in SFRY. And, who could read at all when there was no coffee. People probably slept more than usual. You surely wasn’t able to read especially during the crisis with electric power supply, more exactly during power cuts, because, who can read under candlelight.

Nevertheless, the first actual crisis, when there was a plenty of time for everything, happened in 1999, when FR Yugoslavia was bombed. I was having problems with some things and departments at the time, so I had to spend time in the apartment. A quarantine. That’s exactly what I am doing now while selecting the state-of-emergency literature - thick books that I haven’t managed to read in regular circumstances. I started to read then, four volumes, several hundreds of grams of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece ‘Joseph and His Brothers’. A Biblical story on almost or even more than a thousand pages. Perhaps two thousand. Who can tell. The voice of Avram Izrael was resounding from the radio and air raid alert, Joseph in my room and his earthly-heavenly threats as the Bible is beyond everything.

Now, as well, we should perhaps do everything that we otherwise cannot manage to do during an official business day, week, year … Read thick books. I should right away mention Jonathan Franzen and any of his single-word masterpieces: ‘Freedom’, ‘The Corrections’, ‘Purity’…

These days, when the streets are empty, there are only a handful of professionals that stroll through the night after 5 PM. In the shield of the rotary lights of police cars and public utility service trucks for garbage collection and disposal, there are the ‘bootleggers’ of the curfew: stray dogs and homeless people. Stray dogs don’t know what’s going on, while Belgrade homeless folks know, but are not entitled to a quarantine, merely because street is their only quarantine.

French writer Virginie Despentes and her two (out of three) books published in Serbia show turbulent episodes of a former record dealer who ends up as a homeless person, who bed-hops his way across Parisian arrondissements. A masterpiece.

I was in Dublin last summer, and while drinking famous beers, eating pies, visiting Phil Lynott Statue, it was a good idea to devote some time also to education. I visited the Trinity College and cuddled those several hundred year old bricks so that the success of the Irish literary miracle - Sally Rooney, who has already been globally recognized and known although less than thirty years old, could pass through my fingers or at least that I could ‘get infected’ with it. Her book ‘Normal People’ was labelled by some people as a novel intended for millennials. But I am the reader who does not belong to either millennials or just normal people, and in my repeated visit to Dublin, I’ll have to better cuddle the bricks of the Trinity College, which was attended by young Sally Rooney, in order to get infected with her success so that in the upcoming years I as well could be constrained to a quarantine in which I would count money and awards as this Irish gal does, who gets the most from her writing, similar to her namesake – Wayne Rooney, a football player of Manchester United, who gets the most from his playing football.

And, the most favorite book I recommend is ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ by the English writer Geoff Dyer. This is a sort of a dedication to Mann's ‘Death in Venice’, but in this book the main character does not chase after a handsome boy, but rather after a turbo-attractive US woman, and likes the band Van der Graaf, like I do, forgets to bring a voice recorder when doing an interview, is pissed off with deadlines and business e-mails. An excellent book.

Both Geoff Dyer and Sally Rooney have only words of praise for the writer Rachel Cusk. Her book ‘Kudos’ (‘Pohvale‘) arrived at Serbia at the same time as COVID-19. It rests on my nightstand, with a list of praises on its back side. Those are not memoirs that she wrote on motherhood and divorce which infuriated British media which targeted her as a difficult person. This is the last novel of her trilogy, which is available, each of the three parts, in our bookstores. I recommend the book ‘Kudos’ based on other people’s praises, so if I tricked you into reading it, I won’t be the one to turn to for the refund.

This selection of mine is largely the selection of the world contemporary literature because I read it for the sake of my profession as well as for the sake of writing contemporary prose myself.

Perhaps the emergency circumstances are an ideal opportunity for you to launch yourself into other eras. To run away from the topicalities and into the world of Thomas Mann, Tolstoy… as well as Alexandre Dumas whose book ‘The Three Musketeers’ I used to read often when shifted from a regular to emergency circumstances. Read also the biographies of rock stars (Keith Richards) which have been published in Serbia. This is now a completely different era.

Maybe you shouldn’t be pretentious and rather read comics. A fiction of your childhood. I used to do it often when I wanted to hide from stress and drift into Comandante Mark and Tex Willer. The social network challenges to post childhood photos are in the spotlight now, which is not strange, as the childhood is always innocent and beautiful, unless you are Oliver Twist, but thinking of it, his future also seemed brighter in the end.
Branko Rosić
writer and Deputy Editor in Chief of the weekly news magazine ‘Nedeljnik’