Jenny Davidson

Mar 21, 2020

Jenny Davidson on Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year"

Great Books Series

New Books Network 2020

Why read books in dark times? Daniel Defoe, known to most as the author of Robinson Crusoe, published A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, about the plague that decimated London's population in 1665. The gripping account is presented as a survivor's story who confronts his world being ravaged by an invisible and extremely contagious disease. But Defoe survived the plague as a five-year-old by leaving London. The book he published some fifty years later is a fictional recreation of a period when most certainties and routines held dear by Londoners crumbled around them. Why did people not heed the first warnings and prepare better? How did they behave once the pandemic devastated neighboring parishes? Did the crisis bring out the best in people? And how did Defoe's narrator account for his choice to stay in the city when he had the chance to escape, only to realize that protecting his property was a vain concern when faced with imminent and gruesome death all around him.

Why read such a book right now, during the COVID-19 global pandemic? Jenny Davidson, a literary scholar, novelist and extreme athlete, is an expert on Defoe and novels in general. She explained how reading fiction can give us the experience of deepened time destroyed by a 24-hour cycle of catastrophic news, how reading can be an escape into a quieter yet deeper state of mind, and why Defoe's book is not only a brilliant historical document but ushers in the genre of the novel we take for granted today.

I personally was inspired and uplifted by this conversation with Jenny, after reading Defoe's Journal twice in a week. The book allowed me to process the jumble of panic, denial, fear, frustration, confusion, anger, sadness, and paralyzing mania that has gripped me for weeks now. By reading Defoe's incredibly vivid description of people's responses to the plague, I could cycle through these responses via another setting, and thus let my brain and heart come to rest for a moment. Jenny explained why reading creates this space of deeper quiet for our mind.

We ended the conversation with suggestions of what to read now that so many listeners are in quarantine: books that will let you escape reality without denying it, and give you a sense of being in the world while the world as we know it falls apart around us.

Jenny Davidson is a Professor of English and American literature at Columbia University in New York City. A voracious reader, novelist, and brilliant scholar, she is the author of four novels, several books of literary scholarship and an avid blogger. She also competes in ultra-marathons, triathlons, and all sorts of other completely astonishing athletic competitions.

Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Speaking of…” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email ucb1@nyu.edu; Twitter @UliBaer.

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Uli Baer

Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Speaking of…” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email ucb1@nyu.edu; Twitter @UliBaer.

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