Avoiding books like the plague

Back in March, when lockdown started, I made one trip to the office to pick up things I needed to run my courses from home. I also picked up my copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague. It’s had been years since I’d read it, and I started reading a little bit in the morning with my coffee.

To be blunt, it was putting me in a sour mood.

Of course, the titular plague is meant to be a metaphor. If a reader somehow overlooked this, one character breaks the fourth wall a bit in a conversation near the end of the book. To paraphrase: Can we take a break from the plague for a minute? I know I haven’t got enough character development for you to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, so I’ll share a bit of my biography. There was this time I realized death was bad. And plague equals death, so plague is bad. That’s why I’m fighting the plague. Hey, let’s go swimming.

Nevertheless, reading The Plague in a time of pandemic suggested a more direct analogy. The plague in the book is unrelentingly fatal, and the city in the book is isolated from the rest of the world in its struggle against the disease. Although the Covid lockdown was not that bad, the obvious analogy darkened my perception of an already depressing situation. So I set The Plague aside without finishing it.

Last week, we lost power for a couple of days. So I picked The Plague up again and finished it.

My copy is the Time Reading Program edition from 1962. The graphic design is really nice, with an angel of death motif and red drop cap initials. The Editor’s Preface makes clear that think that the reader should interpret the plague to be war.

They also clearly had no idea what they were talking about. Explaining the post-WW II significance of Camus, they write:

France, and for that matter most of Europe, was sunk in a kind of nihilistic stupor that many American GIs found more depressing than the physical ruins of war. Brilliant intellectuals like Sartre were proclaiming, in effect, that since life had been proved ridiculous, man was justified in living by whatever response he chose to make to the ridiculous. Since nothing mattered, why live as though one pretended it did?

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