New Yorker writers suggest what to read, watch, and listen to in a time of social distancing.
Nothing has prepared me better for voluntary quarantine than my 2011 stint in the Peace Corps, in which I spent much of a year alone in one room. Back then, my preferred way of maintaining some level of sanity was to practice a yoga routine that I had designed to last the precise duration of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” played start to finish. These days, my sanity maintenance has gotten a technological update: I’ve been waking up, clearing some floor space in the kitchen, and taking a yoga class over Zoom.
A handful of the yoga studios that I’ve visited in New York City have started offering these remote classes, and more surely will in the days to come. Zoom yoga allows instructors to continue drawing some income—I’ve been paying a reasonable seven to ten dollars per class—and offers at-home exercisers a sort of shared social accountability that’s more like taking a class in a studio than following along with a workout video on YouTube. You have to show up at the scheduled time, and turning on your camera is encouraged, which means that shame will prevent you from succumbing to common at-home workout temptations, such as getting bored, shutting your computer, and flopping on your couch to investigate whether anyone’s texted you a new meme. There’s a peculiar, grubby intimacy to doing Zoom yoga: you see people’s open closets, their messy offices, the views from their windows. When the instructor leads the class through upward-facing-dog pose, everyone’s face looms huge in their laptop camera; in boat pose, you see the bottoms of everyone’s feet. Sometimes kids join in, and sometimes they leap back and forth over their parents’ prostrate bodies. (Everyone but the instructor mutes themselves, so no one else has to hear shrieking children, or spouses in the corner on loud conference calls.) This morning, my instructor’s cat kept slinking around her moving body, and, during the final resting meditation, my dog woofed suspiciously when she heard the instructor’s gong. I sat up, shyly hummed “Om” in my kitchen, typed “thank you!!!!!” in the chat window, and peacefully closed the screen.—Jia Tolentino
On May 10, 1940, the King of England, George VI, summoned Winston Churchill to Buckingham Palace and asked him to become Britain’s next Prime Minister, just as the Second World War was about to escalate. France was on the brink of capitulation to German forces, and Britain was preparing for an onslaught of German attacks from the air. “The atmosphere is something more than anxiety,” Harold Nicolson, who would shortly become parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Information, wrote at the time. “It is one of actual fear.” Erik Larson, in his suspenseful new book, “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz,” captures the foreboding that settled on London leading up to the bombardment, as well as Churchill’s determination not to give in, and to teach Englanders “the art of being fearless” as they were forced to hide in their homes and endure nightly bombing raids for eight or so months.
I scooped up this book at an airport just before the coronavirus pandemic became an all-consuming crisis in the U.S. (and even foolish people stopped going to airports), and was surprised to discover how appropriate to the moment it is. The atmosphere of dread and anxiety present as the story begins is, by now, familiar; the certainty that something terrible, possibly deadly, is about to be delivered by an unseen enemy, but you don’t know exactly when, is just the feeling that swept through New York in recent weeks. Plus, there is Larson’s reliable, cinematic writing and his intimate portrayal of Churchill (described at one point as “looking just like a rather nice pig, clad in a silk vest,” in a quoted diary entry of a private secretary), one of history’s great crisis leaders, and his family, including his rebellious youngest daughter, the seventeen-year-old Mary. Larson’s account indirectly reinforces the historic nature of our present crisis, which is slightly comforting; it also causes one to pine for leaders who were up to the challenge. After the collapse of France, Churchill addressed the House of Commons and the public, trying to be both inspiring and brutally honest. “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us,” he said. “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.”—Sheelah Kolhatkar
On the night of March 6th, my wife and I left for two weeks of hiking, kayaking, and biking on the South Island of New Zealand; the trip had been booked long before the coronavirus was on anyone’s radar. When we left, like Mr. and Mrs. Rip Van Winkle on a fortnight’s holiday, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. stood at two hundred and fourteen; by the time we returned, on March 23rd, they were at forty-four thousand one hundred and eighty-three (an increase of more than twenty thousand per cent in two and a half weeks). With an exodus of students and faculty from the campus where I teach under way, my friend Jonathan Lethem sent me the Wikipedia page for Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film “On the Beach.” In the film, the only “safe spot” left on Earth in the wake of a nuclear war is Australia, whence Lieutenant Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) sails with his crew in the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Sawfish. Jonathan’s message was clear: When the going gets tough, the tough go to the antipodes. Watching the film again in our time of the coronavirus, there’s much that resonates: the claustrophobia of that submarine, the fear of airborne contagion. Fred Astaire, playing an embittered scientist whose advice the government has ignored (sound familiar?), delivers a drunken speech partway through the film: “We’re all doomed, you know. The whole silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us. Doomed by the air we’re about to breathe. We haven’t got a chance.”
But Kramer’s “On the Beach” is the wrong “On the Beach” for this crisis. In the time it would take you to watch the film, you could listen to Neil Young’s “On the Beach” three times. Do that. Young’s brooding 1974 masterpiece is an essential soundtrack for our moment. Written in the run-up to Richard Nixon’s abortive impeachment trial, it evokes a doom that is by turns personal and political; sirens erupt constantly across the album (often in the Doppler-effect sound of Ben Keith’s slide and pedal-steel guitars). But it offers at least a glimmer of hope, something the film refuses on principle. On the penultimate track, “Motion Pictures (for Carrie),” Young sings to his soon to be ex-partner, Carrie Snodgress, “I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow / And I’ll stand before you / And I’ll bring a smile to your eyes. . . .” It’s not much—the album offers no anodyne wisdom, something Young certainly shows himself capable of elsewhere—but it’s honest and hard won. It suggests an awareness that the urgency of the present moment isn’t all there is. Meanwhile, during the present disaster, Young has launched a series of concerts from his living room, filmed by his current wife, Darryl Hannah, live-streamed to fans who, like them, are sheltering in place. The comfort he offers is modest, but it provides, as his friend Bob would say, shelter from the storm.—Kevin Dettmar
A Guide to the Coronavirus