Halcyon Panacea

by Amanda C. R. Clark with Sophia Du Val

Halcyon Panacea

  • hal·cy·on| ˈhalsēən | adjective denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful
  • pan·a·ce·a| ˌpanəˈsēə | noun a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases

doing okay

strange and hard time

thinking of you


cope with the current situation

The above erasure poetry came to be by removing words from the email sent to me by the Rock & Sling online editor. As I removed words from her email, what emerged to me was the sad, hopeful, strange tenor of this moment that we are living in. And when I say “this moment,” I feel like I should note that the “present” that she sent that email in was likely three months ago. Somehow quarantine time has become slippery: both elongating and shortening at surprising and irregular intervals. Days stretch on, motivation flags, while dormant emails linger for weeks when I’m convinced they arrived merely yesterday. The age of pandemic has given me space to reflect on a multitude of questions: questions of friendship, of knowledge, of power, stagnation, motivation, and use.

I recently was reintroduced to the Punnett square. It caught my imagination—the “perfect Punnett square”—as both diagram, genetic predictor, dating app qualifier, and scientific concept. It seems to embody many possibilities; it seems to embrace both the calming fixity of scientific knowledge (which I always take on faith, since I cannot comprehend it), mixed with a chimerical patina of tidy, magical taxonomy—where all is revealed through classification and order. In short, the Punnett square was, to my librarian’s mind, sexy—the perfect pickup line. It seems to represent perfection in the most disorienting moment I’ve ever known.

And yet, I didn’t—and don’t—understand it at all. The mirage of the Punnett square is much like the time we are living in: a pandemic rages, people rage, individuals are isolated (although, sometimes I wonder if we were also thus prior to the pandemic), and everyone is looking for meaning, connection, and distraction. Books have seen a boost in these odd times; people rushed to public libraries before they closed,[1] and we are eager to save independent bookstores like Powell’s from seemingly-certain doom by shifting our book buying habits.[2]

And so the book remains with us in quarantine, reminding us of who we are without the appointments, the conferences, the meetings, the hustle. They remind us that: “Without words, without writing, and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.”[3] Whereas binge-watching our latest visual munchies—365 days, Tiger King, TicTok—on the internet distracts and placates, reading remains a different social-distancing endeavor. It is, in short, complex. I will lean here heavily on the very-much worthy-of-reading book by Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home, in her long quotes from David Ulin and Wendell Berry below. I will offer these quotes taken in their entirety and then offer a reflection with the help of a colleague. Wolf’s is a book you should consider reading in these times of reboot—for indeed we have the unique opportunity to examine how we live and why:

To read, we need a certain kind of silence … that seems increasingly elusive in our over-networked society… and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply…. Reading is an act of contemplation…an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It returns us to a reckoning with time. –David Ulin

Past a certain scale there is no dissent from a technological choice… What [therefore] can turn us…back into the sphere of our being, that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures…? I think it is love… [a] particular love… requiring stands and acts…. And it implies a responsibility … rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence. –Wendell Berry.[4]

I posit that books, and reading, offer us a panacea of sorts for those who long for the seemingly-idyllic pre-COVID patterns of daily life. But I am caught short, thinking of the recent saturation of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks, that perhaps my “halcyon panacea,” might ring hollow. And so I turned to a former student and now colleague, Sophia Du Val to offer some insights on what I had written above. She challenged me as I had hoped she would. Noticing immediately that I lacked a diversity of voices, and in order to produce a meaningful discussion of self-ness or finding oneself in the mirror of literature; there needs to be a more inclusive conversation happening in the resources deployed.

 “It is good to read for joy, but we have the ability to read for change too.” Du Val states. “The imperatives are personal and universal.” And whereas I might have begun these quarantine phases in search of Punnett perfection and panacea, I stand now in a bewildered posture of reception: watching and learning, to search and seek tirelessly while exhausted, this elusive, essential, and attainable “concept of humanity.” David Ulin had stated that reading should be “an act of resistance,” something that Sophia noted. Such a directive takes on a new, sharper patina in the context of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, the two being presently intertwined. How ironic that during a time when we’ve all been sent to our rooms, the most segregated from all of humanity that we’ve ever been in living memory, we are at this time suddenly more aware of each other, of each other’s pain, struggle, and breath. “Do we read for comfort or for justice?” Sophia asks. “Does this resistance include a radicalization of ourselves and our education? Are we willing to read past ourselves and delve into the experiences of those we’ve unintentionally Othered on the shelves of libraries, or own lives, and our built environment?”  

-Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.

-Sophia Du Val is a Whitworth alumna who recently earned a master’s degree at Pratt Institute’s library school. She is seeking employment in the Pacific Northwest.

[1] See https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2020/mar/14/its-been-nonstop-readers-raid-spokane-library-stac/.

[2] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2020/03/29/powells-books-has-rehired-over-100-employees-to-process-online-orders/#7fe630edf208.

[3] Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: Harper, 2018), 104.

[4] Wolf, Reader Come Home, 188.

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