Late last year, in an essay about the coronavirus pandemic, National Geographic magazine settled on three words to describe how Americans are feeling: “lonely, hollow, heartbroken.” That seems about right. Naturally, however, some of us are faring better than others as misery and grief billow all around.
With that as a predicate, I recently inquired of friends and colleagues, “What is your magic tonic, if any? How are you getting by?” It turned out that among the best salves is the distracting and edifying power of popular culture. As Austrian artist Maria Lassnig once said, “Living with art stops one wilting.”
Granted, most of what’s delivered by America’s television, film, music, and book industries does not constitute high aspirational art. But at least we’re sometimes in the vicinity. Our popular culture, in all of its manifestations from goofy to glorious, serves a noble purpose in a time of need, which this is: Whatever elixirs work, bring them on. When Powell’s, the country’s largest bookstore, surveyed its customers about what they most missed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the answer surprised: It was the aroma of books. So, in a move of marketing genius, Powell’s released a unisex fragrance — an eau de bookstore.
In my own case, sensing some unanticipated fragility, I posted on social media to say maybe I was beginning to falter beneath the emotional weight of the pandemic. “So many things instantly trigger tears: a song, a poem, a paragraph, a photo,” I wrote, referring to the culture all around. The reaction was compassionate. Also, painfully honest. Some respondents offered that they were embarrassed to reveal their personal strategies for surviving in this strange new world. A typical comment, from a woman in Massachusetts: “I think the characters in TV series have been taking the place of my friends and social outings. Sad.”
With cinemas mostly shuttered, stage productions halted, and concerts canceled, it was streaming entertainment more than anything else that Americans sought as a cathartic escape. Netflix in particular has filled the void, its viewership soaring as Americans huddle in front of their big-screen TVs. Last spring, shortly after the virus landed here, the company released Tiger King, a cringeworthy documentary that was nevertheless embraced by audiences; months later, as if to apologize for that trifle, Netflix streamed The Queen’s Gambit, a highbrow dramatic series about chess. Both of those hits gave us something to talk about in the absence of our quotidian pre-pandemic chatter.
“I think the characters in TV series have been taking the place of my friends and social outings.”
So, as we’ve witnessed time and again this century, it’s been the internet that in various ways has helped to rescue us. Beyond filmed amusements (and cat clips), it brings us books and music. Cristina Barcelo, a therapist with a specialty in trauma, several months ago told a blogger that in times of anxiety, people must include music in their lives “because of the positive effects on the brain.” Publishers, too, have released books on a largely uninterrupted basis. Curiously, though, it’s been sales of ebooks and audiobooks that have spiked.
Ultimately, it was left to Amazon, which began as a bookseller, to find a wholly predictable way of capitalizing on our angst. I noticed that in some of its brick-and-mortar stores, it recently chose to feature one particular title near checkout registers: How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad). Ah, so caring, that Amazon.
In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about the smile-generating power of balloons.
This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Tome is where the heart is: Housebound customers missed the aroma of books, so Powell’s bookstore released a fragrance that smelled … just like a bookstore! (Shutterstock)
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