If I Have to Die on a Zoom Call, I’d Rather Be Talking About Books

Suzanne Rivecca on Finding Community at a Book Festival—Only to Close It Down

My dad likes to email me links from Yahoo News. What he likes best are what I call “wake the fuck up” lists. They’re like a midlife version of those old “10 Signs You Should Dump Your Boyfriend” articles from Seventeen, and they always start by saying Some of these signs might surprise you, a caveat swiftly belied by the stark obviousness of the signs themselves, which add up to reveal, bullet point by bullet point, what an undeniable shitshow your life is. Part of the lists’ appeal is their utter lack of surprises: most of the time, they spell out a watertight justification for the decision you implicitly want to make anyway.

In October 2019, my dad sent me one called “13 Signs You Need to Leave Your Job—FAST.”

It began by saying You might be surprised!

As it turned out, I was.

My dad knew I was going crazy trying to choose between two jobs: my current one, which I’d held for only two weeks; and a different one that had just unexpectedly been offered to me.

The job I’d just started was at a nonprofit, but it was unlike any nonprofit I’d ever seen, and I’d worked at a lot of them. This one felt more like a startup. It was glossy, and very well-funded, and it had an open-concept office space and a kitchen with snacks and a Keurig, and its staff used words I’d never heard before, like “onboarding,” which, as I would discover, was a dizzying weeklong initiation into about 5,000 systems of digital encryption and Orwellian people-management software platforms with names like TinyPulse and Lattice; and I learned very quickly that onboarding never really ends, because you have to continuously log your every activity, goal, result, and opinion into these platforms until no part of your consciousness is spared from cyber-assimilation and your superiors can scan you, Terminator-style, for quantitative measurements of morale, productivity, time theft, and lurking resentments.

I’d never been a big fan of the concept of “literary community.”

The director of the nonprofit—I’d been warned, before taking the job, that “he’s not the best with… uh, people”—was moody, and tended to harangue his staff. It made for a tense atmosphere. But on the plus side, I finally had good health insurance; I finally had a living wage—one that felt extravagant to me, but made me officially “middle-class” by San Francisco standards—and I had a flex spending account (I had to ask someone what that was. It sounded pretty great).

I tried to count my blessings. But then TinyPulse would pop up on my screen and say something like “You didn’t take my survey about how productive the Communications meeting was on a scale of 1 to 10,” and I’d receive a message on Slack urging me to take the TinyPulse survey ASAP, and then Lattice would sidle up, shit-stirringly insouciant as the evil Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, to solicit “anonymous” feedback on the leadership skills of the meeting’s facilitator, and I’d consult my benefits package and realize, with relief, that my insurance fully covered a stay in an inpatient mental health facility for up to 30 days.

Anyway, the other job—the one offered to me in the midst of my onboarding—was at the Bay Area Book Festival, where I’d done some freelance work over the summer. Before taking the freelance gig, I hadn’t even known what the Bay Area Book Festival was; that’s how willfully I’d drifted away from literary anything over the past few years.

“I know you just started something else,” the Festival’s director, Cherilyn, emailed me. “But on the off-chance you’re interested, we have a full-time position available.”

Upon reading her email, I had just arrived home after a nine-hour day of assigning minutely specific tasks on Asana and answering TinyPulse surveys about how inclusive our workplace snacks were. For the purposes of an upcoming company retreat, I’d just printed out a drawing of a map, on which I was required to illustrate the steps of my life’s journey that had led me to my current nadir. I’d been there three days; it felt like a decade.

“Let’s talk,” I wrote Cherilyn.

We went back and forth about it for two weeks. I couldn’t make up my mind. The Festival, a tiny arts nonprofit with no endowment, shadowy billionaire patron, or infusion of money on tap from corrupt titans of industry, couldn’t match my current salary; but that wasn’t the main issue. They could give me a living wage; they could give me good insurance.

The main issue was one word: book.

I’d never been a big fan of the concept of “literary community.” My favorite quote on the subject comes from Jincy Willett’s novel Amy Falls Down. In a pivotal scene, Willett’s curmudgeonly alter ego, Amy Gallup, having been cajoled into speaking at a writing conference with more than a passing resemblance to AWP, gives an incendiary keynote:

Are you writers? Then this is the last place you should be. Nothing’s going to rub off on you. Writing is not a communal enterprise. There is no community of writers, just like there is no community of spiders. We don’t work in hives. We work alone. When we marry other writers, one of us gets eaten.

Are you readers? Then this is the last place you should be. We’re just talking here. We’re not gifted speakers. We’re not performers. We’re not, most of us, particularly wonderful to look at. Why seek out the men and women behind the page, when the best of us is on it?

A book festival just felt so… communal.

Not to mention I’d given up all that—all things books and writing, that is—over the summer in a fit of despair, one I’d reframed in my mind as a fit of pragmatic self-preservation. I’d quit a full-time nonprofit job back in 2016 and had been residency-hopping ever since, supporting myself with freelancing. I’d produced 500 pages that I didn’t know what to do with—probably because I was relying on them to save me, justify my life choices, and singlehandedly rescue me from the fate I constantly conjured up with terrifying ease: dying in a gutter. I said “I don’t want to die in a gutter” so often that people started finishing the sentence for me before I was halfway through. I refused to relinquish my 500 pages because I didn’t know if they were good enough, and if they weren’t, I was a shoe-in for a gutter death.

I started writing before I knew what “the writing world” was, and that this strange inward habit, frowned upon by family and friends, had originated, for me, as a beautiful standalone discovery.

Everywhere I went, strangers and friends told me how “brave” I was for putting writing first, for taking this noble risk, for prioritizing art in lieu of lesser things, like savings or security or decent insurance. The people who told me how brave I was, incidentally, had no shortage of any of that stuff. And I didn’t feel brave; I was scared all the time. I was sick of being broke and rootless, sick of sleeping in strange beds, sick of always being grateful, of feeling like a cross between a medieval pilgrim and a roving supplicant, showing up at a rotating carousel of lordly mansions and charming cabins and friends’ vacant apartments with my laptop, the 21st century equivalent of a bindle stick. Then I discovered a breast tumor—thankfully, a benign one—and ended up with a big bill for the lumpectomy. I was done. I told everyone, “I’m going to stop living in a fantasy world.”

Even before that, though, I’d been gradually disinvesting from writing for years. At some point I’d forgotten that I started writing before I knew what “the writing world” was, and that this strange inward habit, frowned upon by family and friends, had originated, for me, as a beautiful standalone discovery: a thing I did to make myself feel exultantly, exquisitely alive.

But then I got older, and published a book, and eventually it became impossible to separate the integrity of that private lifeline from all the other stuff that had sprouted, like kudzu, around it: grad school, post-grad fellowships, writing residencies, a lot of pretentious and sexist assholes, a few grasping opportunists posing as friends; a couple unscrupulous, exploitative editorial experiences at the hands of people who subsequently got famous. Everything around books began to feel volatile and entrapping. The word “book” no longer conjured up a magical imagined landscape, or even a physical object; instead it stood for an ignoble and debased apparatus of sycophancy and groupthink that had taken something sacred and rendered it, to me at least, psychologically toxic.

Maybe I was being a precious little purist. I probably was. But I was also being other things: depressed, demoralized, and sick of self-congratulatory aphorisms about how art will save us. I worked in homeless services in San Francisco for fifteen years, at places where the stakes were life and death. The often facile, self-satisfied ventriloquizing of marginalized voices by writers of considerable privilege made me intrinsically distrust not only the conventional writerly wisdom that every human experience, even those in which we lack the necessary emotional and literal fluency, is fair game as long as it’s dramatic enough; but also the judgment of the gatekeepers who put such things out in the world, and of the readers who celebrate a sentimentalized commodification of abject hardship one minute, then call the cops on the homeless encampment under the freeway the next.

I couldn’t separate my knotted-up disillusionment and disgust and grief from the process of writing itself; I’d stopped trusting it. To admit that last bit—and I had, earlier that summer, with great flourish, proclaiming “I’m done with writing” to everyone closest to me as I began my fulltime job search in earnest—felt sacrilegious; after all, I’d been writing since I was five. But the sacrilege, the grand audacious relinquishment, the nihilistic amputation of it, was part of what made it feel good, and brave, and bold. I’d cut off a part of me, and trusted that something different and better would grow back.

In order to make it stick, I stopped reading books. I knew they were dangerous; they would weaken my resolve. They would make me fall in love again; and when you fall in love, you break all the promises you made to yourself.

All of this was a lot to explain. So I didn’t. I just hemmed and hawed. For days.

Cherilyn seemed to be growing increasingly baffled. She knew I hated my current job. She knew it was driving me crazy. She knew I was, fundamentally, a literary citizen, albeit an expat: I knew why books mattered; I knew why talking about books mattered; I understood it with an intimacy and instinct and passion that scared me, because it was like a language I’d tried to unlearn but couldn’t; it was my main frame of reference; it kept bubbling up, seeping through our negotiations. We’d stop talking about flex time and 401Ks and start talking about the books that had changed our lives; when she mentioned the Festival had featured Rachel Cusk in its Women Lit series, I melted, saying “Oh my God I LOVE HER”—and I knew I didn’t mean her, because I’d never met her; I meant what she did with words, which I knew, in that moment, was a kind of magic, utterly independent from the clamorous and baggage-ridden mechanisms that had packaged it and put it in my hands. I knew that, but I swatted the knowledge away.

“Of course she’s taking the book job. That’s her passion. That’s who she is.”

During my fifth or sixth conversation with Cherilyn, I had run out of questions about benefits, organizational solvency, and the longevity of my proposed position. I had no more excuses to make, no more stalling to do. I blurted out the real reason for my ambivalence.

I told her I’d turned my back on writing and books and decided I was done, and now this job was trying to tempt me away from my virtuous new life of literary abstinence.

I didn’t put it that way. But that’s how I described it to one friend: “It’s like Satan’s tempting me!” My friend paused. Then he said, “You know why you don’t want to take this job? Because it would give you the life you actually want.”

Cherilyn, on the other end of the line, also paused. Then she said, with real fervor, “Oh, God. Come back to life!”

I told her I needed just a little more time. And I went to work the next day, and checked my email on my lunch break, and there was my dad’s Yahoo list.

Even before I looked at it, I knew, of course, what I wanted to do. I knew it in the uneasily lucid way you know a dream isn’t real, but you’re suspended in a weird half-awake state and can’t mobilize your cogent faculties to catch up with your intuition. I was just casting about for—well, a sign. Or thirteen. So I skimmed.

I expected to find indicators like You feel a sense of dread on Sunday nights and You feel sick when you get up in the morning, both of which were on the list, and both of which I was already aware. But then the list did something I didn’t expect. Without warning, it suddenly unspooled a morbidly specific yet toneless vision of despair that could’ve been downloaded directly from my unconscious:

On your lunch break, when you go get a sandwich from a restaurant across the street from your office and step into the road, you regularly imagine yourself facing oncoming traffic and holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “Please run over me so I can skip work this afternoon.”

Reading this on my phone, I was holding a sandwich from the coffee shop across the street from my office, having just idly fantasized about how great it would be if a car ran me over so I wouldn’t have to go back inside. Touché, Yahoo.

I stood there with my sandwich, watching the cars and buses trundle up and down the street, and started laughing. It wasn’t a happy laugh, or even a relieved one. It was a conceding laugh, a fine, you win laugh, because I recognized the feeling that was flooding me, recognized it palely but viscerally, in the wistfully limbic way you recognize an indefinable smell from childhood. It was a feeling I’d avoided for a long time: a tender, jolting reset, a particular kind of gratified vulnerability. I knew what it was.

Nothing else feels like this. It’s the feeling you get when something you read sees you, unmasks you, exposes you. The feeling is close to awe, but without awe’s loftiness—less a brush with a higher power than with some brighter, more radiant consciousness, one that’s clearer and kinder than yours but just as earthy and fallible; it has to be, in order to parse your appetites, your fears, your desires—all the things you’d believed were shamefully unique to you—with such relentless and compassionate precision.

Then, in early March, everything changed, of course. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when the official decision was made.

I had a professor in grad school who held up James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom as the ultimate execution of this phenomenon: how Bloom savors “the fine tang of faintly scented urine” in his mutton kidneys; his engrossed contentment as he reads a paper on the toilet—midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read—and just everything about him, his unassuming gusto and nostalgia and sensualism and need and longing, and how Joyce makes him seamlessly, meltingly inhabitable instead of grotesque.

“Do you know what this passage is doing to you?” this professor had asked me, after reading Ulysses’ toilet scene aloud. He liked to single me out in class, at first to discomfit me, I think; but eventually it turned into a kind of good-natured schtick: I was his straight man.

“No,” I said.

“It’s telling you,” he boomed, pointing at me, “that you’re okay. You’re okay, Suzanne. Suzanne, you’re okay.”

The feeling: beautifully sad, weirdly honored.

When I was a kid, the part in White Fang that made me cry the most—and I cried on pretty much every page—was near the end, the happy and resolved end, when White Fang was domesticated and living in bougie comfort with the guy who rescued him from the dogfighting circuit, but every night he’d hear the distant howling of his wolf brethren and feel, with every chord of his being, the fierce instinctual longing to join the pack, while knowing that he couldn’t, ever again, because he wasn’t one of them anymore.

That’s kind of how I felt, there in the street. Like I was hearing a distant call that resounded in my bones, but I was too late and too far away and too changed to answer.

Or maybe I wasn’t.

And this is why I laughed, there on the sidewalk with the cars zooming past: I knew reading would be dangerous. I thought I’d found an ending—not a happy one, exactly, but one that would land me in bougie comfort, or whatever the San Francisco equivalent of that was: an apartment with an actual full-size fridge? And now I was on the brink of renouncing—again—what I’d decided was my destiny; and the agent of deliverance wasn’t Joyce or Cusk or London. It was a Yahoo listicle. I don’t even know who wrote this listicle. It was probably aggregated by an algorithm, and I don’t know the algorithm’s name, either

The next day, I called Cherilyn and accepted her offer.

My fancy job kindly gave me a goodbye brunch with champagne. The director didn’t come.

But he did say, as I learned secondhand, “Of course she’s taking the book job. That’s her passion. That’s who she is.”

None of the times he’d been gruff or condescending to me had made me tear up. But that did, a little.

I felt relieved and tentatively excited, but I was still protecting myself. Was this a true epiphany, I wondered, or just a convenient escape hatch from the tyrannies of TinyPulse?

I once told my ex-supervisor that I imagined TinyPulse to be some poor lost soul marooned in the sunken place from Get Out, desperately transmitting anodyne questions that are actually coded cries for help and liberation; and she looked at me levelly and said, “That’s dark, Suzanne. Really dark;” and in the wake of everything—the renunciation, the agonizing, the un-renunciation—it seemed that this morbid flight of fancy presciently applied not only to TinyPulse but to me, and that encoded in all my anguished protestations against writing and books and literature were the pleas of some other, smothered, diametrically opposed voice, lost in the abyss but refusing to give up on getting found, even if the signals got crossed, even if no one understood, even if no one answered.

The only one who could answer, after all, was me.

It took me until my second week as a full-time festival employee, when I took a break from writing copy and grants in order to embark on my first real, deep-dive immersion into the Festival’s actual content. My task was to sift through archival videos of past events, looking for particularly good author quotes to feature in communications materials. This basically meant that I had to watch hours upon hours of footage of writers—ones I admired, like Rachel Cusk, Rebecca Traister, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Terry Tempest Williams—talking. In front of audiences who had come to hear them speak: not read, but speak. They told stories. They made jokes. They answered questions. They even, some of them, teared up. They came out with gems that were eminently quotable but refreshingly non-performative and unrehearsed: the kind of insights that come only from conversation, when a mind is singularly engaged in responding to another mind, in real time, with all the empathy and focus and levity and fluidity such an exchange requires.  As I watched, hour after hour, I felt the dangerous thing happening again, the thawing, the softening, the de-numbing. The desire to answer. To howl along. Come back to life.

The money quote came from Williams, who said, in a voice thick with emotion, “This is what a writing life is: a life engaged with a community who stretches you, believes in you, and holds you.”

At first I didn’t know if I agreed. The Willett passage still dogged me: Writing is not a communal exercise. We work alone. Then it occurred to me that Williams wasn’t really talking about engaging with other writers, per se; I think she meant that you can’t write—or at least you can’t write well—if you’re walled off, calcified, apart, ungenerous, incurious. I thought of the years I’d spent working at a homeless-youth program, and how my old boss, Mary, knew that you couldn’t reach kids on the street if you didn’t know—on a real, cellular, humbled level, not a assumptive one—how it felt to live like that. You didn’t have to live like that to know it; you just had to have the generosity, the lability, the openness, to bridge the distance. You had to ask the right questions and listen to the answers. It’s not a touchy-feely Kumbaya thing but a radical act of subversion: subversion of your own complacency, self-regard, stultification. It’s a willingness to be constantly remade. In that way, it’s not unlike being a reader, or a writer: the best kind of both.

I still can’t look at the gigantic spreadsheet with all the authors, sessions, blurbs, and books on it: the representation of eight months of a tiny team’s work.

I still think, and probably always will, that “the best of us” exists on the page, but even so, the best of us is a static entity: preserved and crystallized at some idealized apex of expressiveness. The rest of us—the part of us that exists in fluid communication with the world—is constantly in flux, being made and remade with every little bit of otherness we let in; and that process, messy as it is, is worth witnessing, too. It just feeds a different stream—one that leads, ultimately, to the same river.

Although I knew I’d made the right decision—one sign was that I no longer fantasized about vehicular suicide—I’m still a fatalist, and kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But it didn’t. I saw firsthand how a literary festival is put together—the conceptual aspect, the business aspect, the fundraising aspect, the piles and piles of books read, authors selected, publicists pitched—and you’d think proximity to such literary sausage-making would be triggering, but it wasn’t, maybe because it all seemed to come from a place that was clear-eyed and practical, but also weirdly pure: everyone involved just loved books. Their lives had been changed by books. They got excited about books. They wanted, genuinely, to bring something good and nourishing and inclusive and necessary to everyone else. They wanted it to matter, not as some effete rarefied enterprise, but as a relevant contribution to an urgent conversation.

We planned a huge and complex program about voting rights; our programming staff put together sessions on navigating grief, on climate activism, on cultural appropriation, on the secret languages of trees, on literary misfits, on Toni Morrison and W.S. Merwin. Even my human services background wasn’t wasted: I got to help with planning and conceptualizing two panels about the homelessness and housing crisis in the Bay Area, featuring heroes of mine from both sides of the aisle: artists like Season of the Witch author David Talbot and The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails; and social-justice advocates like Moms4Housing’s Dominique Walker and Hospitality House’s Joe Wilson.

Then, in early March, everything changed, of course. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when the official decision was made—there were emails and calls for days, initially cautiously optimistic, then alarmed, then resolutely resigned—but I was probably in the middle of writing a blurb for a Festival panel. I think it was the one about mushrooms, because that’s the one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since. We were featuring a memoir by a woman, Long Witt Woon, who went foraging for fungi in the wake of her husband’s death; and a film, Fantastic Fungi, about how the world might be saved by an underground network of subterranean filaments that no one can see, but that are trying, doggedly, to communicate with us.

My Italian grandpa used to forage for mushrooms. He knew how to tell which ones were poisonous, and once, years after he died, I was in a forest in rural Virginia when a friend and I stumbled upon a patch of morels, and I felt him with me, weirdly, even though he was gone; I felt him in the strange delighted affection that surged through me for this huddled cluster of odd wrinkly lobes, the gratifying unmistakability of them, their tessellated crenellations intricate as honeycomb. I talked to them, like they were friends I’d kept waiting: There you are, I said. So this is what I was probably thinking about: not my 500 pages of doom; not the steadily escalating crisis unfolding out in the world; not even my job, although I was doing it.  I was thinking, probably, about my grandpa, and about the quote from Loon’s book that stuck with me: The course of bereavement does not run smooth; it progresses in fits and starts, takes unforeseeable turns. Then I got the call with the news that we were canceling.

The Festival officially announced the cancellation of its 2020 event on March 11. I still can’t look at the gigantic spreadsheet with all the authors, sessions, blurbs, and books on it: the representation of eight months of a tiny team’s work and planning and vision. It’s too sad.  And I’d say that this was my shoe-dropping revelation, my you made the wrong decision comeuppance—my previous fancy workplace, I’m sure, is weathering this catastrophe with a far bigger safety net in place—but it wasn’t.  I still knew I’d made the right choice.

That’s not to say I’m unworried about the Festival’s future. I’m worried all the time. I’m a fundraiser, which means worry is my most natural inclination. But I’m also somewhat inured to crisis: a casualty of having spent most of my adult working life at a homeless-youth organization where my boss called me every other day to say “I have good news and bad news,” and the good news was that the City hadn’t completely decimated our funding yet, although it probably would next fiscal quarter; the bad news was that someone died.

Still, the workplace catastrophes I’m accustomed to are inbuilt, steady, anticipated: features rather than bugs. This catastrophe is different—all nonprofits, especially event-based ones, are taking a major hit—but the questions it raises aren’t entirely new. Without a profit motive, what’s a 501c3’s best-case scenario? Survival. Endurance. Avoidance of gutter death. I’m a grant writer, and that’s what we ask for, all the time, in a million different ways tailored to each funder’s particular and byzantine qualifications: not a surplus, not a big boon for the shareholders, not a slush fund for raises. Just the bare minimum: the ability to keep giving people something for free. Something they need.

Demonstrate the need, the grant applications always say.  For an arts nonprofit, that’s always the hardest section to write: is anyone going to die without literature? The harm done by its inaccessibility can’t be quantified, only retroactively hypothesized: what would the state of my soul be if I’d never read Bastard out of Carolina, which had a James Baldwin quote as its epigraph, which led me to Notes of a Native Son, which broke my brain and put it back together again? Grantmaking portals don’t have a section for stuff like that.

Nonprofits, especially the small ones, bear the onus of justifying their existence down to the most miniscule line-item. Overhead is a bad word; we are expected to be as punitively lean as a greyhound.  Right now, CEOs are using their rank-and-file employees as bartering chips, threatening to lay everyone off while giving themselves giant bonuses, just like they did in 2008. On the other hand, nonprofits—which, unlike corporations, are rarely deemed “necessary and essential” by the powers-that-be—are perennially expected to bend. To be reeds in the wind. To be optimally agile and flexible, even if agility—that supple capacity to pivot, reinvent, seamlessly triage—is a luxury they can’t afford. It doesn’t matter. In my fifteen years of immersion in the asking-for-money field, I’ve learned that, in the eyes of the world, tiny scrappy nonprofits are like poor people, or at least the kind of poor people that exist in Lifetime movies:  fetishized as thriftily ingenious, pluckily resourceful, with deep reserves of cheerful inventiveness that are tailor-made for times like these. If we give them too much money, we’d lose the fun part: watching them make something out of nothing.

The homeless-youth place I used to work for got evicted from its Haight-Ashbury drop-in center on Christmas Day, 2013. The very next day, my boss and the frontline staff were out in the streets, having adopted a mobile-delivery service model overnight: giving kids medical care from a van parked outside the vacant drop-in, holding emergency therapy sessions on curbs and benches, doing safer-injection trainings on the sidewalk as neighbors and tourists walked by and gawked. No one helped. The City certainly didn’t. There was no time to grieve, to adjust, to come to terms with what was lost.

There’s no time to grieve the Festival, either. Even though we’re all sleepless and exhausted, we’re pivoting. We’re in constant talks about how to bring some of our programming to people virtually. The other day, after a two-hour Zoom call with about 20 of us—full-time staff, part-time staff, interns—gathered in a checkerboard of faces on a screen, all sheltering in place, gauging one another’s backdrops, brainstorming ways this might happen, I had a thought—furtive, half-shameful—that I haven’t had since 9/11, when I was in two weeks into my MFA, all perky and shiny and high on the transformative miracles of reading and writing.  In the wake of the towers’ collapse, with a war imminent and an idiot in charge, my first, unbidden, wild reaction was, What if no one’s going to care about literature anymore?

I remember, back in 2001, feeling like it might be inappropriate or frivolous or selfish to wonder such a thing.   At the same time, it was a real fear: I really didn’t think literature would matter anymore. How could it, if everyone was scared they were going to die all the time? The most striking difference between my mentality then versus now is this: I no longer think of writing and books as things that no one loves and values as much, or as purely, or as jealously as I do.  Perhaps that should’ve been obvious, even back then, but it wasn’t, because in those days, nothing and no one was as real to me as my own inner world.

But I know better now, because I’m 19 years older.  I know that people will care about literature even if the world’s falling apart—especially if the world’s falling apart. I don’t idealize it; I know it won’t save us from a pandemic. But I do know that it saved me, and most people I know, in a thousand incremental and small and big ways, and that it’ll keep doing that, whether we’re inside or outside, whether the world’s on fire or not, because it can’t help it. That’s what it does. Either way, we’ll be left with what we already had in the first place: a mortal life, one that will end at some point, but that’s fraught with little curveballs of transcendence and enlargement that give us, before we die, a thousand fighting chances to fall in love, to come back, to find what’s lost, and to undo what’s set in stone. We just have to take them.

The other day I told a friend that dying in a gutter is no longer my worst-case scenario. Instead, it’s dying while on a Zoom call about something stupid.

“If I have to die on a Zoom call,” I said, “I’d prefer to at least be talking about books.”

That may not sound like a life-affirming revelation, and I’m grading myself on a curve, and the world’s falling apart, and I haven’t seen sunlight in four days, but believe me when I say this: it’s the closest I’ve come to one in a very, very long time.

Suzanne Rivecca
Suzanne Rivecca
Suzanne Rivecca is the author of Death is Not an Option (WW Norton 2010), which won the Rome Prize in Literature and was a finalist for The Story Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, among others. She lives in San Francisco.





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