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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

The Lexicon - Serried

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.


Word: Serried

Definition: (adj) crowded or pressed together: compact

Origin: MF pp. of serrer to press, crowd, grasp; from LL serare to bolt, latch; from L sera bar for fastening a door

Source: The Plague by Albert Camus (translation by Stuart Gilbert)

Wave after wave of heat flows over the frontage of the tall gray houses during these long, languid hours. Thus the afternoon wears on, slowly merging into an evening that settles down like a red winding-sheet on the serried tumult of the town. At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evenings found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and loud with voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness.


Though there is much that feels eerily familiar in the epidemic-struck land in Camus's The Plague, the way people press together -- on the sidewalks, in the streetcars, at the cafes and theaters -- is utterly foreign here in our socially distanced world. The whole time I was reading, I kept being upended by their physical proximity to one another. If they contracted the plague, there was isolation and quarantine, but up until that moment of disease, they maintain a nearness that made me wish for them the same cheery grocery store announcements we've endlessly heard, imploring us to "maintain a distance of six feet for all our safety and well being!"


In some ways, this makes sense. They closed off the town to keep the plague from spreading to other localities (impossible to imagine in today's high-traffic world), which meant they were trapped with the disease. It would be reasonable to adopt an attitude of "nothing to do about it now!" and carry on as best they could. Knowing what we do about viral transmission, however, I was in anguish over these serried streets.


And I can't help but connect this word to its neighbor 'serrate,' with its mouth full of crowded teeth, ready to cut or tear or bite. Had the town not been so pressed together, so willing to enter into the serried tumult, how many lives might have been saved? How many, in exchange for a few months of lonely and longing, might have avoided death's serrated edge?

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