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Doomsday Book: A Review

This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It’s also one of the most interesting ways I have heard about a book. In preparation for teaching a class on the Middle Ages, I was listening to some Great Courses on several subjects. One of them was The Black Death by Professor Dorothy Armstrong (side note: I recommend ALL of her courses. She’s fabulous!) In one of the lectures, she explains how reading books of fiction on some areas of her expertise can help her understand and humanize other areas. She recommends several books, and I dutifully wrote each of them down and subsequently read them. They were all interesting and worth the read, but “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis stood out for me.

From the publisher:

For Oxford student Kivrin, traveling back to the 14th century is more than the culmination of her studies - it’s the chance for a wonderful adventure. For Dunworthy, her mentor, it is cause for intense worry about the thousands of things that could go wrong. When an accident leaves Kivrin trapped in one of the deadliest eras in human history, the two find themselves in equally gripping - and oddly connected - struggles to survive.

It’s set in the 21st century yet published in 1992 as the first of a 4-novel trilogy The Oxford Time Travel series. I found myself fascinated with a science fiction writer’s imagining of our own very-near future ─ Not only is truth stranger than fiction, but innovation is faster than imagination in many cases.

Kivrin is an interesting and well-developed character. I often stopped to wonder what I would do in her place. (Mini spoiler: She does end up in England as the Plague is arriving.) At the same time, Oxford 2054 experiences its own viral outbreak that is sweeping through the town. Having just experienced our own worldwide pandemic this hit home in a different way than I could have felt with the same intensity pre-Covid.

The dissonance of having cracked time travel while still using rotary phones aside, the heart of this story is human connection and the reality that what differentiates any person who has lived in any time from any other is technological advancement.

The Middle Ages is Kivrin’s area of study, her expertise. She knows exactly what has arrived and what the outcome will be. Rather than run away and isolate herself while waiting for the window back to her time to reopen, she spends every ounce of time and strength she has tending to the people she has come to know and love. And that is my takeaway reminder from this book.

I believe that most people are decent and good; that if it were possible to get to know my fellow citizens on earth I would genuinely like them and live with more peace and grace in my heart. I need a book like this to remind me that I really do believe this because, when I am driving on the freeways of LA, I don’t always act like I believe this. And that leads me to my other takeaway ─ I would love to act and live more truly what I believe because my children are watching (and listening) and forming their own belief systems.

Whether you want your own takeaway or just a really enjoyable read, I definitely recommend Doomsday Book.

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