Food for our souls


I FEEL LIKE I’m reacting in slow motion here, but I am hoping it’s not too late to make a pitch for bookstores to be put on the list of essential services both now and in the future when we face another crisis that requires a stay-at-home order.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t realise how bookstores could have supported us during this crisis. With schools closed, we could have built a reading nation that supported students in both their academic and personal challenges. We know from academic studies that date all the way back to the 50s, students who read during holidays return to school three to five months ahead of their non-reading peers so consistent reading is important.

Books are as important as food. They nurture our souls in times of trouble. The stay-at-home order has been particularly hard on children, socially speaking. It is not easy for adults to go through social isolation so you can imagine how children are feeling. But books offer us an escape.

At this time, we can’t get on a plane and travel anywhere, but our imaginations allow us to go anywhere we want to go if we’re reading books. My students in prison always tell me how reading lifts their spirits and makes them feel free.

Books offer information for us to make sense of our lives – even when they have been turned upside down like they were in this crisis. There’s comfort in knowledge, and there are so many good books out there about zoonosis – spillover diseases from animals to man.

In the last few weeks, I read The Coming Plague by Laurie Garret, and I learned about viruses that are even worse than the one we face now. There’s the Marburg virus, which is from the same virus family that causes Ebola. That virus has a fatality rate of up to 88 per cent.

The Coming Plague, written in 1994, feels like it could have been written last week. We have been warned for some time about these spillover viruses, and now we are seeing the consequences of our actions. It’s good to have this time to read and reflect on what we have done to the world and to consider what we can do to rectify the situation.

I can’t claim that making bookstores essential services is my idea. This idea has been cropping up on the internet. Still, knowing the value of books, I wish I would have put my two cents in earlier.

Clearly the Government needs to recognise the value in opening bookstores. It’s highly unlikely that bookstores will be mobbed like KFC or other food places. Bookstores can offer a welcome outing to a place where social distancing would not be difficult. One trip to the bookstore can help everyone to feel more comfortable at home for weeks at a time.

For me, the clincher came to write this column after I read a book called Molly: The True Story of the Amazing Dog Who Rescues Cats by Colin Butcher. At the end of this true story about a cocker spaniel who works as a pet detective, the author talks about a case where he suspected a cat he and Molly were searching for was hiding out in the garden by a retirement home.

He carried Molly to the home, where she met the residents and became especially important to a 90-year-old resident, who spent her days looking out the window.

After Molly kept indicating the cat was present in the garden, but the pet detectives could not locate where she was hiding, Butcher enlisted the help of the 90-year-old woman. He asked her to call him as soon as she spotted the cat. She did, and Butcher solved the case. Ecstatic over her role in solving the case, the old woman said, “People don’t make you feel useful at 90.”

Sitting at home in these trying times and facing retirement in June, I finally found someone in a book to express exactly how I am beginning to feel. Ageism is real, and we feel it as we get older. That passage in Molly’s book has helped me to face those feelings.

This is why books are important. They speak to our individual needs. They help us to connect the dots of our lives. They propel us forward and help us disappear like magic when we want.

It took Molly the pet detective to make me realise how we all should lobby for bookstores to be recognised as essential services.


"Food for our souls"

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