Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague (Hardcover)
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A timely and nuanced book that sets the author’s experience as a nursing home volunteer during the pandemic alongside the wisdom of great thinkers who confronted their own plagues.
In any time of disruption or grief, many of us seek guidance in the work of great writers who endured similar circumstances. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, historian and biographer Robert Zaretsky did the same while also working as a volunteer in a nursing home in south Texas. In Victories Never Last Zaretsky weaves his reflections on the pandemic siege of his nursing home with the testimony of six writers on their own times of plague: Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, and Albert Camus, whose novel The Plague provides the title of this book.
Zaretsky delves into these writers to uncover lessons that can provide deeper insight into our pandemic era. At the same time, he goes beyond the literature to invoke his own experience of the tragedy that enveloped his Texas nursing home, one which first took the form of chronic loneliness and then, inevitably, the deaths of many residents whom we come to know through Zaretsky’s stories. In doing so, Zaretsky shows the power of great literature to connect directly to one’s own life in a different moment and time.
For all of us still struggling to comprehend this pandemic and its toll, Zaretsky serves as a thoughtful and down-to-earth guide to the many ways we can come to know and make peace with human suffering.
About the Author
Robert Zaretsky’s books include Boswell’s Enlightenment, A Life Worth Living, Catherine & Diderot, and The Subversive Simone Weil, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press. A columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, he is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate. Zaretsky lives in Houston with his wife and children.
"Literary-minded readers will find much to consider."
— Publishers Weekly
“It’s magical how much Zaretsky covers while zigzagging swiftly and deftly through the literature, history, and philosophy of plagues. Interludes about his volunteer work in a nursing home add a real-life, charming, absurdist atmosphere to the big ideas of thinkers like Marcus Aurelius or Albert Camus. For those of us who’ve been trying to face and process what we’ve just gone through, Victories Never Last serves to kick our thinking up a notch. His writing is a model of scholarship at its finest: lucid, learned, down-to-earth, and honest.”
— Scott Samuelson, author of Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
“This is a unique survey of the Western canon – one that covers a vast amount of area so to speak, but with a special aim in mind: to show how different groups of people in different ages responded to the horrors of widespread and deadly contagion. The author’s ability to speak with equal eloquence on texts of the Classical period up to the 20th century, across geographies and cultures, attests to the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Victories Never Last is timely, nuanced, and performs the all-too-rare service of highlighting the humanities’ relevance in times of great political and social urgency.”
— Christy Wampole, author of The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
"Robert Zaretsky is a marvelous writer, with an extraordinary gift for making the past speak to us in a language that we can understand. In our time of plague, he has returned to the plagues of the past, helping us to grasp what Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Camus, and others came to understand about the terrifying way disease can upend our certainties and our hopes. Zaretsky’s measured, ironic and calm voice is especially welcome in our trying times."
— Michael Ignatieff, author of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times