Notes from Lockdown
With people across the world spending far more time at home than usual, many are struggling to find ways both to stay occupied and to relieve stress. We asked some of our contributors where and how they are finding motivation, inspiration, or solace during this strange and uncertain time.
Yuen Yuen Ang
Duncan Green, How Change Happens
Drawing on firsthand experience and real-world examples, this book explores what works to achieve progressive change. I’m reading it for ideas on how to rethink and update global development in the post-COVID world.
There’s no better moment to learn to grow at least some of my own food than during lockdown. This is also the right time to write a book on the future of political economy in an age of deep uncertainty. When our systems are being shaken to the core, tweaks are no longer sufficient or sensible.
J. Bradford DeLong
Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History and The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era
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The first is a comparative analysis of the two great economic and financial crises of the last century. The second examines the repeated episodes of democratic erosion in the Global North during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Both are excellent – even better than I remembered from my first reading.
With the university campus that we share now closed, I can no longer just walk down the hall to Barry’s office and talk to him. But, as Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, reading is like “enter[ing] the ancient courts of ancient men,” and being “received by them with affection.” In one’s study, one is “not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions,” and “they in their kindness answer me.” It is not quite the same; Barry’s books are not a Turing-complete instantiation of his mind. But they are a remarkably close substitute.
This book chronicles Batman’s decades-long evolution, examining the dialogue among writers, artists, their creation, and readers that has repeatedly transformed the style, form, and emotional tone of the character’s story, without rendering him unrecognizable. In the process, Weldon addresses why Batman has turned out to have more legs over the generations than other characters in the “superhero” genre: it’s because he is not a superhero.
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Batman: Year One
This comic, available on Kindle Unlimited, is perhaps the best telling of the “dark Batman” version of the story.
Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City
Our current mode of human existence has remarkably deep roots, extending back to the choices made by the societies of Sumer and Akkad more than four millennia ago. Leick pinpoints those choices and shows how they have shaped – and continue to influence – our world.
Tobias Straumann, 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler
The best thing I have read in a decade. Straumann shows that German policymakers’ response to the slide into the Great Depression was even worse than that of their Western European and North American counterparts.
I have been rewatching old movies lately, and this 1934 film – in which a former detective and his wealthy wife investigate a murder case – was among those that most impressed me.
Another investigation, another great film.
The 1974 sequel to That’ll Be the Day, which tells the story of the rise of a rock star in England, shows the protagonist’s tragic fall.
As of this writing, it is estimated that one in 80 California residents has or had COVID-19. We rank 30th among the US states, with 48 confirmed (and probably 60 true) deaths per million. In an effort not to catch – or spread – the disease, I take long, solitary walks in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, in between reading or watching the aforementioned titles. I try to let President Donald Trump occupy my mind for 15 minutes a day, but no more. COVID-19 gets 45. Otherwise, I am trying to play my position.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
I just read a new (for me) set of translations of this classic seven-volume epic, which I first read nearly four decades ago. It was a very Proustian experience: did I react differently because the translations were different, or because my own memory had altered the first experience?
This year marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, so there are some terrific things to listen to, both by and about him. I particularly like Lebrecht’s recommendations of particular interpretations of Beethoven’s work.
I am also enjoying Donald Macleod’s podcasts, a series of hour-long discussions exploring and explaining Beethoven’s life and music.
Cooking is a great stress reliever, and the silver lining to not being able to feed others is that I can be more adventurous, since only my spouse and I suffer the consequences. I have been traversing continents in my own kitchen, trying my hand at everything from traditional Bengali fish to Thai glass-noodle salad to inauthentic Italian pasta. Next, I plan to attempt a ripe mango curry from Kerala with coconut and yogurt.
Biographies that illuminate history are among my favorites, and in that category, this book – the life story of the onetime chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service – is certainly a worthwhile read. As Churchill’s spymaster before, during, and after World War II, Menzies had the unenviable responsibility of predicting what would happen next. This account of who he was, how he reached his position, and – most of all – how incredibly difficult his job was compels all of us to consider what we are asking of experts today when we demand to know how the pandemic will play out.
Martin Cruz Smith, The Siberian Dilemma
At a time when face-to-face socializing is ill-advised, spending time with my favorite fictional character – the Russian detective Arkady Renko – is not a bad substitute. I first met Renko in 1981 in the superb Gorky Park. Nearly 40 years and nine books later, it is wonderful to have him again coming to call.
This dramatic series – now through its seventh season – tells the story of the fictional village of Villeneuve, beginning with the German invasion in 1940. It is my nominee for the all-time best television drama, not only for its superb cast and writing, but also for its historical verisimilitude. I’m eagerly awaiting season eight.
Another period drama, this German series follows troubled and complicated characters in the Weimar-era city, amid international intrigue, social upheaval, political battling, and existential uncertainty. It reminds us, yet again, that as crises unfold, we never know what will happen next.
My spouse is an extraordinary chef and loves to prepare new dishes; I would be foolish to get in her way in the kitchen. My recommendation to deal with the current situation is to stick with a routine. In my case, that means a couple of hours of exercise, good coffee while I read the newspaper, some writing, and, as evening approaches, a glass of wine in the garden. These activities conform with all health and social-distancing guidelines – provided the wine is drunk in moderation, of course.
Nina L. Khrushcheva
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Crisis invites contemplation – once you get through the panic and fear, that is. For that, Márquez is a wonderful companion. At a time when most of us are stuck at home – many alone – One Hundred Years of Solitude provides a solitary and self-reflective escape into a magical yet realistic world of joy and plenty that has been destroyed by men – their greed, their uncontrolled passions, their lust for power. It is a world that is all too familiar to us today.
And if Márquez’s other works – The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and No One Writes to the Colonel – can’t teach us grace under isolation, nothing can.
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
For those who never managed to find time to read Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time epic – of which Swann’s Way is the most frequently read part – try it now. If nothing else, they’re more effective than any sleeping pill. Crack one open ten minutes before bedtime, and you’ll be out before you know it.
Federico Fellini’s 1973 comedy-drama tells the story, in a series of vignettes, of a teenage boy growing up in a coastal town in 1930s Fascist Italy. It is simultaneously serious and absurd – ideal viewing for these strange times.
Like Amarcord, British police procedurals are both serious and absurd, and one of my favorite viewing pastimes. Over the last month, Inspector Morse has been my nightly companion. I always loved John Thaw as Morse, but now we need him more than ever. Not only does he keep us safe; his disdain for minutia and self-aggrandizement keeps us sane.
I am writing my next book, Putin and the Women – well, trying to. I was going to do it in Moscow; I had plans to fly there in March. But border closures disrupted my plans, so I am writing here in New York City. When I’m not writing, I’m walking to Moscow – 15 miles (24 kilometers) every day, without leaving my apartment. I have made good progress so far: 600 miles out of the 4,664 that lie between the two cities.
Edited by Africa Information Service, Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral
I am re-reading this collection of speeches by one of Africa’s leading anti-colonial figures, who helped lead Guinea-Bissau to independence, in search of a connection to another time of uncertainty that demanded unity on the African continent.
Rollo May, The Courage to Create
This book presents creativity as the currency of uncertain times. It has inspired a family activity: each of us contributes five sentences to a shared story. The results keep us connected and human, and offer an escape from the uncertainty that prevails.
Transfert, by Slate.fr
These podcasts, which cover everything from personal stories to history and economic affairs, keep me company while I write. I used to listen while flying, so I had to form a new routine to keep up and recapture a semblance of normalcy.
On breaks from homeschool, my kids and I have been making pancakes and baking cakes, reminding me of the time I spent baking with my mother when I was their age. Over the last few weeks, I have also had the opportunity to write more articles and engage in discussions with peers around the world, producing joint publications that take advantage of each of our areas of expertise – combining, say, history and finance.
This book comes out in June, but I got an early copy, because I wrote a blurb. Obviously, it is a very relevant read at a time when money is being poured into the economy. We must now develop a new framework for an outcomes-based economy, so that we don’t return to useless austerity when this crisis is over. In fact, that’s the topic of my next book!
Montale, the winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the most important poets of the modern era. I always find his work soothing in difficult times.
I am very lucky to have never seen this renowned American crime drama, so I am binge-watching it.
This ten-part documentary series, recently released by ESPN, tells Michael Jordan’s story through the lens of the Chicago Bulls’ final championship season in 1997-98.
My husband is a film producer, so we do movie nights with the kids, watching all the classics. This past week, that meant these two Martin Scorsese masterpieces.
Channel 4 news
The whole family watches the evening news together, so that instead of being bombarded all day, we get quality information to comment on during dinner. Old style!
I have four teenagers in my house, so we have been doing lots of things together – including arguing! We play cards at night (Scopa, Scala 40, crapette) and board games (Articulate! and Dixit). We are a rowdy Italian family, so I think our neighbors might be a bit worried.
I have also thrown myself into sourdough baking, not only because there is a shortage of bread in my area, but also because I find it very therapeutic. I have also been trying pizza dough and working with different flours, including spelt. And I have rediscovered cycling and fixing bikes: I bought an old bike some time ago, and have now turned it into a beauty, with a big yellow Dutch bell that my sister gave me for Christmas years ago.
In addition, I recently started to work with artists – such as Olafur Eliasson, who included my book in his recent exhibition – on the green economy. There is a strong link between the health crisis and the climate crisis: we need to care for people and planet! Finally, because I am on various COVID-19 task forces around the world (in Italy, South Africa, and the Vatican), I spend a lot of time in Zoom meetings with policy-oriented teams.
Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on mixed mental models. Currently, that means this illustrated guide to such models, from Hanlon’s Razor to Forcing Functions.
My lockdown viewing has focused on documentaries. In this 2013 movie, Academy Award-nominated director Joe Berlinger delves into the 2007-09 financial crisis through the perspective of Henry “Hank” Paulson, the oft-criticized US treasury secretary who was tasked with preventing the global economy’s collapse.
This BBC documentary takes viewers into the fire-ravaged remains of the renowned Parisian cathedral, and follows the people working to resurrect it.
I have begun training (on a treadmill) for this year’s New York City marathon , scheduled for November 1. It will be my fifth full marathon, and the 50th anniversary of the event. I also have daily French conversations via video chat, in order to stay current on what’s happening in France and to keep up my knowledge of the language.
I am re-reading this account of how changes to prevailing weather patterns contributed to a decades-long period of war, revolution, and human suffering in the 1600s. If you want to know how the consequences of climate change will unfold (or is already unfolding), this history is a mirror of our future.
Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll
In keeping with the seventeenth-century theme, I recently finished a second reading of this great German writer’s retelling of the myth of Tyll Ulenspiegel, who travels through a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War (which Parker argues is also the product, at least partly, of climate change). The book is wonderful mix of storytelling and history, including an appearance by the strange polymath Athanasius Kircher.
Confession: I have never had a TV. I listen to NPR in the mornings and evenings (while cooking). Otherwise, I do the old-fashioned thing and read newspapers, such as the Financial Times, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Occasionally, I also follow leads on Twitter to interesting articles.
I am so busy with teaching, meetings, workshops, and more – all carried out over Zoom these days – that I don’t need extra activities to pass the time. Still, I try to find time to play harpsichord, either solo (again leaning toward the seventeenth century, especially the composers Louis Couperin and Johann Jakob Froberger) or duets with my husband, who plays the viola da gamba (Marin Marais, suites for viol with basso continuo). I also take yoga classes over Zoom, and lately have been walking my neighbor’s dog, as she works long hours in a hospital.
Stephen S. Roach
Before lockdown, I was slugging my way through Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology, but made it only through part one. Then along came COVID-19, and I got hooked on this history of the flu epidemic of 1918-20. It is easy to see the differences between then and now, but also amazing (and frightening) to see the similarities.
I was always a news junkie, but now it’s gotten ridiculous. I read four newspapers and scan Bloomberg before getting out of bed at around 6:30 or 7:00 each morning. That obviously means I am more sleep-deprived than ever.
Teaching (online), reading, writing, and home supply-chain management consume my waking hours. I still manage to get about 75 minutes of exercise each day (aerobics mainly, but also a little stretching). Not having left my home in six weeks puts a bit of a crimp in anything more exciting.
I always read several books at a time, both fiction and non-fiction. Among them have been Patchett’s novels, including Commonwealth and The Dutch House – two meticulous chronicles of families, with their light and dark sides. Both examine the love within families, the need to accept one another as we are. It is welcome reading at a time when my husband and I are once again living with our young adult sons.
Like so many, I have picked up this fascinating read, simultaneously a history of science and medicine generally and a parable about another great epidemic.
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March
This novel depicts the slow decline of the Habsburg Empire over three generations, and the gradual emergence of social fissures that were soon to split wide open. It is a parable of another sort, as I believe this crisis will make it impossible for the US, at least, to maintain its current political economy.
I read much more than I consume visual or aural content. But my husband and I watched this fantastic docudrama miniseries in March – appropriately apocalyptic, while illustrating the critical importance of free and accurate information.
This month, we are taking refuge in this detective drama, in which an ultra-British police detective, with his stiff upper lip, solves mysteries against the backdrop of village life during the darkest days of World War II. The acting is excellent; the scenery and settings are lovely; and the guarantee of a tidy – if often jarring – resolution within 90 minutes is comforting, as is the knowledge that Britain (and the Allies) will triumph in the end.
I plan to start listening to this podcast, which tells wonderful stories of mindfulness, cosmic mystery, and renewal. It’s a great complement to the Calm app, whose “sleep stories” are great for keeping the gremlins at bay.
In between sessions working on my next book, titled Renewal, I’m cooking with the fresh vegetables that we are now getting delivered from local farms (kale and lentils in red wine, anyone?), and trying finally to learn how to bake decent biscuits. Above all, I’m learning birdsongs. I’m an enthusiastic amateur birdwatcher, and this spring, with no airplanes or traffic noise to drown them out, is the ideal moment to learn to identify them by sound.
Finally, I’m practicing gratitude. I am keenly aware of how differently this crisis affects my family and me compared to so many others. We can, say, donate money to food kitchens. But, ultimately, we must raise our voices to help ensure the creation of a system that provides care and connection to all.