From the Fallout Shelter

Penn State Harrisburg's Literary Arts Magazine

Literary Citizenship in the time of Corona by Sam Bixler

I know what you’re thinking. Not another coronavirus article, another listicle full of hacks for surviving quarantine, another social media post wondering what will happen after. The world right now is chaotic and unpredictable, and everywhere we turn, it seems that someone is exploiting the tragedy for views and clicks – latching onto the fear and uncertainty for their own gain. But with every day seeming to bring worse and worse news, we are all struggling. Our plans are canceled or put on hold, our finances are up in the air, our classrooms have been shifted to a completely new environment.

In a world where everything has been turned so completely upside down, it may be in our best interests to cling to any sense of normalcy we may find. If you’re anything like me, your pre-COVID plans included literary citizenship – events such as readings and lectures, writing groups, etc. Living in the Harrisburg area, most of us are lucky enough to have access to plenty of coffee shops and bookstores which regularly bring together writers and readers to learn together, engage with one another, and participate in meaningful discourse.

With the temporary closures of many local businesses and stay-at-home orders set in place, it seemed to me that my plans would never come to fruition (it doesn’t help that I’m stuck behind the Canadian border while I’m writing this, but that’s another story entirely). Who knew when I would next be able to sit among my peers, seeking guidance and knowledge from more established writers or sharing my own work for critique and discussion? With everything else falling through, I had assumed it would be simply another blow – another series of moments I would have the misfortune of missing, a necessary sacrifice to keep myself and those I loved safe.

Bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries have heard these concerns, however, and are finding ways to make literary citizenship possible even in this time of pandemic. Local Harrisburg bookstore, the Midtown Scholar, has shifted most of their upcoming literary events online, streaming them live for viewers and posting recordings so that they may join from the comfort of their homes. As of the time of this writing – April 21st – there are two upcoming events this week from authors Andy Greene (The Office) and Michael Rips (The Golden Flea), and readings and discussions will continue to be held online for the foreseeable future.

I won’t lie to you: having viewed the April 17th recording of their event held with Madeline Miller (Circe) and Helen Morales (Antigone Rising), it’s not the same experience as going to a store, sitting in a small crowd with your cup of coffee warming your hands and listening to someone speak about their book for an hour. There is no hum of patrons perusing the store shelves, no faint murmurs, no musty smell of books and worn paper. But in times like these, we take any semblance of reality and normalcy and we cling to it like a life preserver thrown into a freezing ocean. We make ourselves a cup of coffee, dress up if we have to, and pretend. We thank the people responsible for allowing us this slice of something outside ourselves, for this moment of peace amidst a chaotic world, for this time to simply focus on ourselves and writing and the voices of other authors.

Even now, we seek solace in art, in learning, in connection with others – even if that connection is through a screen and over a slow and laggy internet connection. We practice literary citizenship, hone our craft, give ourselves the time and space when we can to step back and allow ourselves to breathe. It’s not always possible, not always easy, but if we don’t give ourselves this – these blips of time during which we only have to worry about what we’re seeing on screen, what we’re hearing and reading – then we will be overrun by grief, by doubt, by collective trauma. Now more than ever, we need literary citizenship. We need art. We need each other.

If you’re interested in attending virtual literary events held by the Midtown Scholar, check out their calendar of events here:

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