Reading While Sick: A Luxurious and Occasionally Surreal Experience

I love reading at all times, despite my addiction to Netflix.* But while reading on a day off or while traveling is pleasing, some part of your brain knows you have other demands and time is limited. When you are ill and laid up with nothing you are physically capable of doing, and you have a book to read, it is the ultimate leisure.

This is a time-honored way of reading: think of sickly Colin Craven of Burnett’s The Secret Garden reading books of rajahs and animals while stuck in bed; or the title character of Ondaatje’s The English Patient listening to the nurse read his beloved Kipling and bits of the Bible or Herodotus while he lies burned and high on morphine. When you’re sick and can’t do anything or go anywhere (and Netflix hasn’t been invented), what else can you do besides read?

In all seriousness, when I’m actually sick, I don’t want to keep up with loud noises and flashes of color (that camera click and freeze-frames of Scandal‘s scene changes is unbearable when you’re unwell). If I’m down with the stomach virus, the flu, cramps, or food poisoning, I want black and white pages and the simple responsibility of holding my head erect enough to see the words and turn the page. You can fully immerse yourself in the book, and that may be why many of my sick day reads have stuck in my mind for so long.

A Picture Book of Anne Frank, written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Karen Ritz

I’ve mentioned my experience reading The Diary of Anne Frank as a teenager, but I first heard Anne’s story in one of those picture books that come with a cassette tape that reads the story aloud and tells you when to turn the page. Who thought Anne Frank’s story would make a great picture book, replete with images of Anne and her sister bald, thin, hollow-eyed, and hugging each other in a concentration camp? David A. Adler and the folks at Picture Book Biographies, that’s who. And also my mom, who picked that up at the library for me when I was nine years old and down with a stomach virus.

It’s only now that I question Adler and my mom, however, because at the time I lay there on the couch playing that tragic story over and over on the tape and admiring the illustrations. I definitely didn’t think it a strange picture book to hand a fourth grader. Two moments stand out to me most. Obviously, the illustration of Anne and Margot at Bergen-Belsen, with the narration telling us how Margot died and how Anne died later–just before the prisoners were all released. But I was also fascinated by the illustration of Anne lying on her bed, stomach-down, legs up  and crossed, beneath cheerful posters of movie stars–a normal teenager. The contrast between these pictures is intentional, I believe, and demonstrated the normality and the tragedy of Anne’s short life, though the text, limited by its intended age group, couldn’t.

The book is for ages 4-8 y.o. (yikes), so a lot was gotten across in the somber and articulate narrator of the audio as well as the detailed watercolor illustrations. In straight-forward language, the text sums up the German election of 1933, and Hitler’s rise to power. It was probably my first real introduction to the Holocaust (I read a kid’s version of Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place shortly after). It showed me a window into a civilized modern country that had previously been fairly inclusive of various peoples but had an undercurrent of racism and cruelty that pulled the entire nation into a totally nightmarish world surprisingly quickly. It would be a long time before I would actually study German history and read Mein Kampf, but it was a wake-up call to reality.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

Another selection by my mother during that terrible week of the stomach virus–the original 1956 novel that the Disney franchise stemmed from. I am not an animal person, but I have always loved animal stories. And while I wasn’t necessarily all that into the movies–though I really liked the 1961 animated version and the 1996 live-action–I was really into the 1997 cartoon for some reason. Maybe that isn’t so strange–neither of the films are very character-oriented. The animated version is really comedic and the emphasis is on some seriously good character design and its general brightly-colored aesthetic. The live-action was highly dependent on the star casting and the humor as well; as a result, it pandered more to adults than children. No version is really concerned with the personalities of the Dalmatians themselves, except the cartoon, which centered on the dogs’ relationships with each other.

Smith’s novel has a tone much like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It reads like it’s meant for children, entering in to the way kids describe things or think, without using childish language or vocabulary. To a 20th-century nine-year-old, it was immediately engaging. Smith breaks and completely disregards the much-touted writing rule of today: “Show; don’t tell.” Like a fairy tale, the narrator tells every event precisely and explains each character’s thought process briefly. I haven’t re-read it till just now and the writing itself didn’t stick with me, yet scenes did (the parent Dalmatians in the rainy countryside) and the fact that there are two female adult Dalmatians. Missis is Pongo’s wife and the mother of the main fifteen Dalmatian pups, and Perdita is a stray dog whose puppies have already been stolen when she is brought to help Missis feed the fifteen. Subtlety is not Smith’s gift–she did name her villain Cruella De Vil, after all, and she has Mr. Dearly (the human owner) state, “If you put the two words together, they make d e v i l. Perhaps Cruella is a lady-devil!” But for a child, subtlety isn’t always appreciated.

The world of The One Hundred and One Dalmatians reads like a fairy tale, childlike in its perspective but never once talking down to its readers. It’s a dark mid-century London story about kidnapping and murder, but it never gets bogged down by its own grimness and just proceeds with the story, plot taking precedence over style. I read it in a day. There are some surprisingly deep moments–Pongo rejecting another dog’s suggestion that he kill Cruella, as he doesn’t want his children to have a “killer dog” for a father. There is also this portrayal of TV as utterly enrapturing; Cruella’s henchmen fail because they are so obsessed with and absorbed by TV. But Smith doesn’t turn to her readers and try to make a point. She just tells her story. There’s little conflict really, and things get resolved pretty easily, and wrap up quite nicely. It’s not a modern story; it’s old-fashioned but not fussy, and that is its charm.

Running Out of Time by Margaret Petersen Haddix

My mother did well on this choice too–that same week, she picked up this Haddix novel. I’ve never written about Haddix here, but I should, because her novels deeply affected me when I was young. At the risk of being annoyingly stodgy about today, I find that complex books for young people nowadays are cloistered into YA books (with some good reason if they contain mature content) and children’s books have been watered down into foolishness like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Haddix wrote children’s books with complex themes and yet little to no sexual content or language (that being said, I distinctly remember the one necking scene in Among the Betrayed!). Like Dodie Smith, Haddix never seemed to think a middle-schooler was incapable of understanding serious plots.

The main character of Running Out of Time is Jessie, a thirteen-year-old girl, who has no romantic entanglements. She has lived her whole life in a small 19th-century Indiana town with her parents, and the story gets going when diphtheria begins to spread through the town. The town doctor has no cure, but Jessie’s mother takes her aside and reveals that the year is actually 1996 and a cure for diphtheria has long been invented. The town is a tourist attraction, a fake glimpse into 19th century life, and only the adults know the truth. The tourists think it’s all pretend, but very believable. To save her ill sister, and with her mother’s help, Jessie escapes the town to find a doctor who had opposed the town’s creation, and must adjust to a modern world.

Yes, that is kind of the plot of the M. Night Shyamalan 2004 film The Village, and yes, Shyamalan has been questioned about this. It’s also pretty Truman Show-ish. But Haddix’s novel preceded both those films, and brought that plot device to children first. I could see the world through Jessie’s eyes when I read, and it was easy to imagine I would handle it all as well as she did. Haddix’s heroes and heroines are faced with tough decisions and are afraid, but are brave and strong–a far cry from the Wimpy Kid books, which largely feature selfish and cowardly characters without many (any?) redeemable qualities and without too many high-stakes conflicts. The fact that Haddix’s protagonists are children doesn’t take away from their strength. When I read this book, I had no idea what diphtheria was (turns out I still have trouble spelling it, tbh), but I was caught up in Jessie’s adventure.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The gap between this sick day and those listed above was more than a decade–I don’t often get sick! When I read Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, I was in college and stuck home with the flu in my mom’s bed. I’d borrowed the book from a friend, I think, but not sure who (thanks, friend). Delirious and bed-ridden, I decided to read a surreal fantasy novel. If y’all have read or are watching American Gods, then you KNOW how Gaiman’s mind works. I don’t do drugs, but being delirious and read Neil Gaiman must be a similar experience.

Anansi Boys is something of a spin-off of American Gods, about a young American man named Charles Nancy who has spent his whole adult life trying to get away from memories of his embarrassingly bizarre father, but who is stuck with feelings of inadequacy and the unshakeable nickname of “Fat Charlie.” Fat Charlie’s life is starting to improve–he has a good job in London and a wonderful fiancée, Rosie–when he finds out his father has died of a heart attack while singing karaoke. On his visit home for the funeral, Fat Charlie discovers that not only was his father in fact the spider trickster god Anansi, but Fat Charlie has a twin brother who has inherited all Anansi’s powers. When he accidentally summons his brother, Fat Charlie gets pulled into a world of strange old magic.

Reading this book, I was pretty convinced that there was a spider god and there was a spirit world of animal gods and Fat Charlie and his brother Spider were real. To be fair, I was sick and also thought the bed was moving. But it’s a remarkably believable fantasy. Gaiman, as well as he writes Americans, is a distinctly British writer, and when he writes fantasy, it is heady and truly bizarre and illogical–yet it makes sense and feels right because on some level magic can’t make sense to us. To borrow the word from another fantasy series we may talk about too much on here, we as readers are Muggles. We want to understand magic rationally and realistically, limited by our regular understanding. But Gaiman doesn’t try to define magic. His magic is amorphous and strange, and breaks all the rules, and pulls you in right along with the protagonist.

Queens Consort by Lisa Hilton

Last week, I got sick enough to take an actual full-on sick day for the first time since college, thanks to some devious guacamole. For those who have never had food poisoning, it feels like being actually poisoned and your whole body is seemingly dying. It was awful. But it was also great, because some part of me had been thinking nostalgically of those stomach virus days and being laid up on the couch with a blanket and no responsibilities. Appropriately, I spent my sick day reading about medieval royalty (some of whom were actually possibly poisoned).

Hilton sets herself a tough task–she has to go from the 11th century to the 16th to tell the stories of twenty medieval queens of England, from Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror) and Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII). For some of these women, the primary sources are sparse, and there are not always birthdates, but Hilton is able to spin out a picture of each women’s queenship, even for the seemingly irrelevant or unmemorable like Berengaria of Navarre or Adeliza of Louvain. It is very much a work of popular social history and so occasionally makes unprovable claims (like the London Bridge nursery rhyme being about Eleanor of Provence), and it is subject to Hilton’s personal bias about some figures. But it’s a fun and expansive read about medieval women and makes some interesting points about medieval queens having the most power in the earliest centuries and less by the time of the Renaissance.

Curled up in a blanket and resolutely dressed in pajamas during the day for the first time in years, I read through most of the book (as of this writing I’m still not done). Here I am, with all my privilege and paid sick day, reading of queens whose lives were actually not as comfortable as mine, even if they did get dressed by ladies-in-waiting. If I’d gotten food poisoning in the 13th century, I’d probably have had  a physician bleeding me to get all the bad humors out. Also, while these queens had more power than most women of their time and many of them influenced politics (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabelle of Angouleme, Elizabeth Woodville, etc.) or led armies  (Matilda of Boulogne, Margaret of Anjou), they were limited by societal expectations as breeders and weaker vessels. It’s easy to romanticize this time period, and after spending the latter half of my sick day marathoning The White Queen, I too was swooning at princess hair and gowns. But it was a vicious world, for all its chivalric customs and elaborate festivities, and so much that we all take for granted was nota available to these women, even in their positions. Their access to better food, hygiene, and healthcare was better than the egregiously desolate lives of the poor, but they also frequently died before the age of forty after bearing and miscarrying broods of children who mostly didn’t live to adulthood. Yet reading of their lives, I couldn’t just pity them, because these women had some grit and pride in them, and many still found joy in life. Some, like Matilda of Boulogne, had loyal husbands; many, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, and devoted children. Quite a few were highly educated and communicated with rulers across the world to advocate for their rights or that of their family’s. They were incredible humans and were real. Hilton’s book gives a lovely glimpse of that.


Writing this I was just thinking lovingly of sick days and leisure without feeling guilty, but after breaking down these books, there’s a pattern here. When I’m unwell and incapable of anything useful, I like reading about people (or dogs or spider-gods) who were bold and unafraid, people who did not let others dictate what happened. I like reading about people who aren’t lazing about, and let’s be honest here–even at our physical peaks, isn’t it so easy to laze about and not pursue what we want or what is right?

Most days I’m rushing about with a buzz of responsibilities in my head–write that email, send that text, finish that blog post, start that paper, write something in my novel, buy the coffee machines for church, go to Costco**–but not always accomplishing much. I spend a lot of time trying to dissect and rank responsibilities. When sick, I felt like I had no responsibility to do anything, and I could actually think. What do I admire in people? What do I want to be doing? What is really important?

Definitely still don’t have the answers, but it’s important to get out of the daily grind for a minute to breathe and reevaluate.

…That being said, I need another sick day.

*I only realized recently how addicted to Netflix I have become when my brother-in-law told me he’d cancelled the shared Netflix account…I went through the five stages of grief in my soul, and when I reached acceptance I submitted to the divine decision to separate me from my addiction. “Just kidding,” said my brother-in-law, and I have not yet recovered.

**I may have written that out to remind myself of my to-do list this week. Can’t hurt to write it down everywhere I can.

Brittany Ann Zayas


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