My 2020 reading life, like the rest of my life over these last nine months, has been erratic and confusing, occasionally manic, often stunned into a dull numbness. It’s also felt about five years long, all of them lived by someone else I kind of vaguely know. Looking over the scrawled list of “books read” I started in January, I can’t really remember being the person who did most of this reading. For example: 2020 was the year I finished War and Peace, and it’s an effort to recall ever cracking it open. I remember enjoying the process, but I couldn’t give you a clear summary. I do, though, remember being annoyed half to death by Natasha, which is why her sections of the novel took me months to get through. Also, you know, the pandemic.
What I remember well is starting Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights while on a plane from London to Austin in January — reading about travel while traveling! soaking in all that buzzy energy, caught on the page and then reflected back, transformed! I was truly living another life — and then finishing it while sitting on my deck in March, after COVID had grounded almost all international travel and left my English boyfriend stranded with me in Texas. I wasn’t sure when we’d be able to get on another plane; after the borders closed, any attempt to get Eddie back to the U.K. would have meant saying goodbye indefinitely, but keeping him in Texas meant drastically reorganizing our lives. In this setting, Flights’s creative, propulsive movement, its breakdown of borders and history, genre and narrative, hit different, as the kids say. Reading about the psychology of airports was a kind of escape when I couldn’t go much further than the end of the block, but finishing Flights was also a first reckoning with how much we’d already lost, and how quickly. Appropriate, then, that the book is as much about stripping-away, about mourning, preserving, and letting go, as it is about travel; it’s full of characters caught by some mysterious force and thrown out of their patterns and routines, a freshly relatable experience. Flights won the Man Booker in 2018, but I’d argue it’s more interesting in our new context, itself one of the strange bodies it describes, beautiful and weird, a bit of life miraculously preserved by unknown science.