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Coronavirus Reading: Jia Tolentino Suggests A Book

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As we all try to find ways to visit other realities, we're asking writers what they're reading to find new places and times for distraction. Today we hear from Jia Tolentino, who writes for The New Yorker. She's using this time to catch up with a very popular book in recent years because she rejects the notion that the coronavirus shutdown is a good time for heavy reads like Marcel Proust.

JIA TOLENTINO: There's no way in hell I'm reading Proust right now. You know, what I want from a book right now is something really all-enveloping and ideally something long, like something that will absorb me completely. And so I was like, OK, this is a good time to read "Wolf Hall" because everyone says these books are amazing.

So the "Wolf Hall" trilogy is Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Henry VIII but more saliently about Thomas Cromwell, who is sort of known in history as this, you know, extremely malignant, conniving fixer who just, you know, was arranging for the deaths of Anne Boleyn and sending people to the executioner nonstop. And in Mantel's book, he is a completely different kind of figure. I mean, he's more decent but also just more interesting, more complicated.

And there's a plague component to it. Like, it's during a century in London where there was a thing called the sweating sickness that would hit every summer. This is just kind of humming very, very slightly in the backdrop of the book.

And initially, it was sort of - it was a reminder to me that, you know, we who are alive right now - this moment that we're living through - it feels so unknown and so unlike anything we've anticipated. And it was kind of - like, comforting is not the right word, but it was rewarding, in a way, to remember that plagues and epidemics are a fact of human history. They are part of what it means to live in the world and to be human and to live next to each other and to have our bodies around each other and to be in cities and all of that.

And there was something nice about sort of resituating myself in, you know, an incredibly long flow of history and understanding that I think our sort of native self-interest and the panic of the moment can make us sort of enlarge our sense of the present. It was just really nice to read these books and realize, you know, like, time passes. These eras - they can be both historical and ephemeral. I don't know. It's just - it's been nice to absorb myself in another world that was changing very quickly in which the stakes were very high and that has passed.

CHANG: Jia Tolentino - her most recent book is "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.