I don’t know if I read a single book in all of 2020.
Well, that’s not true, I read a bunch of books at the start of the year, following my usual habits of loading my library holds list and carefully coordinating the timing of suspending and unsuspending holds and tracking inter-library loan transit in order to maximize the enormous piles of books I had my husband bring home to me, all with the dedicated unwavering focus of an air traffic controller. I never read all the books I request at a time, but I have assured myself via several librarians and library employees that circulation numbers are important and no one hates wandering through the shelves to pull someone’s requested holds. I translated that to myself as an understanding that boosting circulation numbers is my job and sending long and varied lists of holds is assigning someone a non-arduous and sometimes interesting task.
I’m sure I read some in the beginning of the year, but I don’t think I could pull a single thing to mind if you paid me (and you could, if you wanted to, seeing as how circulation numbers are my job and I’m doing it), and in March, the libraries closed, leaving me with an enormous stack of my most recent holds. And they sat there. And sat there. And sat there.
I had some false starts here and there — maybe I got through one or two of them, read the first couple pages of a few more. Took a look at some things that had been languishing in my Kindle, tried to read in the bath. Picked out an audiobook or two for tedious tasks. I did read some things at the very beginning of the year, stuff I really enjoyed: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, The One and The Passengers by John Marrs. But it definitely ground to a halt early in the year, when the situation kept going… and going… and going… and the STATE OF THIS COUNTRY kept giving me bigger and bigger eyeballs.
I guess it’s not quite accurate to say I didn’t read anything at all for most of the year, though, because I did read – I read a lot. It was just all fanfics, specifically fanfics that I’ve read at least a dozen times each. Similarly, while everyone was talking about new shows they discovered in quarantine, I was also watching plenty of things, it’s just none of it was new – I watched Sherlock for the jillionth time, I watched kdramas I’ve seen over and over.
80% of the media I consumed in 2020 could be summed up in two words: NO SURPRISES.
That’s what comfort media really is for me – it’s not characters I find particularly lovely or plots I especially like. It’s stuff I’ve read and watched to absolute death, to the point that not a single facial expression, not a single WARDROBE CHOICE is a surprise to me. I can’t be shocked or startled or scared or taken unawares, I have been through this a thousand times and I’m prepared to go through it a thousand more. Nothing new is appealing, because I don’t know what’s coming, and there was enough “I don’t know what’s coming” going on in the world for me, all full up, no thank you, run Doctor Who from the beginning again, please.
Recently, though, my reading picked up at an absolutely crazed pace. At the end of February, I’m already about to surpass the total books I read in 2020. This uptick started at the end of January — hmm, WEIRD TIMING to suddenly develop the mental space for literally ANYTHING AT ALL. I won’t speculate as to what possibly could have changed. At the end of January. In 2021.
If you are similar in that you spent a lot of 2020, or maybe even longer — maybe even the last four years — struggling to find the mental energy for anything but the most mindless of media consumption, or only the familiar, and you think you’re ready to get back out there and play the book field, I have got a suggestion for you.
If you’ve heard anyone talk about this book, you’ve probably heard words like “lovely,” “comforting,” comparing it to a warm hug, and other similar things that are not at all like me to actually say, but here I am agreeing with them. This might be exactly what you’re looking for if you want to read something, but you’re not quite ready to read Something, capital S.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is about a man named Linus Baker, who works for a government agency in charge of the monitoring of the care of magical youth. He’s something like a social worker, I guess, as the most accurate comparison. He’s tasked with visiting orphanages that house children of various magical species and abilities, following the strict guidelines set out in a thick rule book to determine whether or not that particular orphanage should stay open or if the children should be moved or sent to a government school instead. He’s good at his job in that he takes it seriously, he follows the rules, he remains objective, and files his reports on time.
He’s so good at following the rules and maintaining objectivity, in fact, that one day he gets called up to the big bosses and given a special task — extremely classified — to go spend a month evaluating an orphanage he’s never heard of. In fact, it doesn’t seem like anyone has ever head of it. The Extremely Upper Management members are very interested in a full and detailed report on this orphanage, the six children who live there, AND especially the man in charge, specifically from Linus.
He goes to this orphanage and, you know, hijinks ensue.
I think The House in the Cerulean Sea is a perfect Coming Out of the Comfort Cave book because it touches on a lot of themes that we’re dealing with heavily in the real world — discrimination, respecting and honoring differences between people, viewing things from another perspective, the value of children as whole people worthy of all the respect and dignity we assign to adult lives, whether who we are is predetermined or a factor of our environment and the people who surround and raise us. It’s a lot to think about. At the same time, these issues are all dealt with on the page, not left sitting on you and leaving you stewing in fury and helplessness. We get to watch Linus work through all of these things as well as confront his own life, why it is the way it is, what he actually wants from it, and what’s stopping him from having what he actually wants from it.
I enjoyed the shit out of the experience of reading this book. It’s smart and it’s funny and the characters are well developed. I’d call it an equal balance between character-driven and plot-driven, though I did find myself wanting just a little bit more from each side. While I feel like we could have learned a bit more about this or that character, or had a bit more world building or backstory into understanding why the world is the way it is and how it got that way (though I suppose that’s not especially hard to imagine on your own), those are personal wants mostly stemming from the fact that I was enjoying the hell out of everyone and everything and just wanted more and more of it. There is enough in this book – plenty, really – that the arc of the main character, Linus, feels authentic and believable and earned.
What I think is funny, though, now that I’ve finished this — now that it has been one of my initial steps out of the cave of comfort media I’ve barricaded myself into for the last year — is that I know I’m going to buy myself a copy of this book. I like to use the library, because as I’ve said a thousand times, CIRCULATION NUMBERS ARE EVERYONE’S JOB, and I don’t feel pressured to have the newest book immediately, I do like a deep back list, I moved 11 times in 15 years and moving books is hateful, I feel oppressed by all the things I own. But this book, I know I am going to want to read it again and again, essentially turning it into the exact kind of “no surprises, only pleasant” coping media I’ve been living on for the last hundred years and four days.
I’M NOT SORRY, IT’S GREAT.