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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Welcome to "That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Pandemic" a Torrey House Press online series. Launching the conversation this week is Karin Anderson, author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams.

Karin Anderson

In January – really, just a few weeks ago – I began my fifty-eighth semester of teaching at Utah Valley University. I reminded my students that we were here to wallow in gorgeous, terrifying, hopeful, and gloriously bewildering language as the solstice lifted us into springtime.

That’s still true, but not in the ways I generally prophesy. We’ve been forced apart in this stunning pandemic season; I’m writing foremost here for my beloved students as we muck our way toward a remote and disorienting finish. Even so, we will finish this term together. Soil and sunlight await our carrot seeds. But I may not have to work so hard to persuade my anxiously “professionalizing” English majors how much literature matters, well beyond the classroom and confusing options for a paycheck. At this point, we’re not merely wallowing – we’re hungering. When standard market priorities flicker and dim, literary voices blaze to incandescence.

“Real” writers strive to convey meaning that transcends tired tropes. When the messages are urgent, language is pushed to exceed itself. Readers lean in. Centuries compress. My job teaching literature has kept my little family tribe warm and fed for three decades, and I’m grateful. But reading for myself, as an idiosyncratic human being, has also generated the only survivable meanings I can grasp in the most confounding moments of raw existence, of perpetual care for family and neighbors, the reach toward eager and uncertain scholars, loss and wretched mortification, fear for the future, fear of extinction, absurd and transcendent moments of human encounter.

"When standard market priorities flicker and dim, literary voices blaze to incandescence."

It’s a contemporary “fact” propped to the level of Barthesian myth that our students are already crippled by depression, temporal anxiety, fears of inadequacy, and personal trauma. And now they face pandemic and recession, in such dramatic manifestations that the “news” can’t be dismissed as mere conspiracy. How will they cope?