Pandemic Reading Strategies & Recommendations, Serious or Tongue-in-Cheek

If you’ve been spending time blog-hopping or on Twitter over the last few weeks, you will have seen countless riffs on this topic. Everyone’s pondering what’s best to read in these times. All we can get our hands on about plagues (Boccaccio, Camus, Defoe)? Allegories of similarly challenging worldwide disasters (WWII, 9/11)? Childhood favorites? Comfort reads? Funny books? Light, undemanding stuff? Rereads?

My general answer would be: as always, read whatever you want or can – anything that captures your attention is worthwhile. We’re under so much stress that our reading should be entirely unpressured. But to be a little more specific, I’ve gathered reading recommendations on a variety of topics, drawing on lists that others have made and linking to my own blog reviews where applicable.

(Some of these ideas are less serious than others.)

 

If you are brave enough to learn about zoonotic diseases:

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: This is top-notch scientific journalism: pacey, well-structured, and gripping. The best chapters are on Ebola and SARS; the SARS chapter, in particular, reads like a film screenplay, if this were a far superior version of Contagion. It’s a sobering subject, with some quite alarming anecdotes and statistics, but this is not scare-mongering for the sake of it; Quammen is frank about the fact that we’re still all more likely to get heart disease or be in a fatal car crash.

 

If you can’t look away from pandemic stories, historical or imagined:

I already had Philip Roth’s Nemesis (set in 1940s New Jersey amid a polio epidemic) out from the library because it was on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist in 2011. I was also inspired to take Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (set in the 1660s and featuring an English village that quarantined itself during the Plague) off the shelf. I’m nearing the end of these two and should have my reviews up next week.

You will see no one book referenced more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a wholly believable dystopian novel in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic. The remnant bands together not just to survive but to create and preserve art. “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (My full BookBrowse review from December 2014.)

See also this Publishers Weekly list of “13 Essential Pandemic Novels.”

 

If you’re feeling cooped up

Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: “Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter.” (I haven’t read it, but I do have a copy; now would seem like the time to read it!)

 

…yet want to appreciate the home you’re stuck in:

Years ago I read and loved At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I can’t tell you anything more than that because it was before the days when I reviewed everything I read, but these are both reliable authors.

I love the sound of A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre: “Finding himself locked in his room for six weeks, a young officer journeys around his room in his imagination, using the various objects it contains as inspiration for a delightful parody of contemporary travel writing and an exercise in Sternean picaresque.”

I’m also drawn to Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House by Julie Myerson, who combed archives for traces of all the former residents of her 1870s terraced house in Clapham.

 

If you’re struggling with being on your own:

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This remarkable book on outsider artists interweaves biography, art criticism and memoir. Laing is a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland: Maitland argues that although being alone is easy to achieve, there is an art to doing it properly, and solitude and loneliness are by no means the same thing. Profiling everyone from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity to the Romantic poets, she enumerates all the benefits that solitude confers.

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton: A one-year account of her writing life in New Hampshire, this is Sarton’s best. The book dwells on the seasonal patterns of the natural world (shovelling snow, gardening, caring for animals) but also the rhythms of the soul – rising in hope but also falling into occasional, inevitable despair.

See also this Penguin UK list of books to read in self-isolation.

 

If you’ve been passing the time by baking

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: As chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermon, Olivia Rawlings settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes. This is a warm, cozy debut novel full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator, and I loved how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan: Lois Clary, a Bay Area robot programmer, becomes obsessed with baking. “I needed a more interesting life. I could start by learning something. I could start with the starter.” She attempts to link her job and her hobby by teaching a robot arm to knead the bread she makes for a farmer’s market. Madcap adventures ensue. It’s a funny and original novel and it makes you think, too – particularly about the extent to which we should allow technology to take over our food production.

 

…but can’t find yeast or eggs in the shop:

Yeast: A Problem by Charles Kingsley (1851). Nope, I haven’t read it, but our friend has a copy in his Everyman’s Library collection and the title makes us laugh every time we see it.

The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald: MacDonald and her husband started a rural Washington State chicken farm in the 1940s. Her account of her failure to become the perfect farm wife is hilarious. The voice reminded me of Doreen Tovey’s: mild exasperation at the drama caused by household animals, neighbors, and inanimate objects. “I really tried to like chickens. But I couldn’t get close to the hen either physically or spiritually, and by the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.” Perfect pre-Easter reading.

 

And here are a few lists I put together for Hungerford Bookshop:

 

If you need a laugh:

 

Fiction:

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Darling Buds of May (and sequels) by H.E. Bates

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Anything by Nick Hornby

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Anything by David Lodge

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

The Rosie Project (and sequels) by Graeme Simsion

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

 

Nonfiction:

Anything by Bill Bryson

21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox

Anything by Gerald Durrell

Anything by Nora Ephron (essays)

This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer

Anything by David Sedaris

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

 

 

If you want to disappear into a long book:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Nix by Nathan Hill

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

 

If you’re looking for some hope:

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World by Studs Terkel

 

I’ve been doing a combination of the above strategies, reading about historical plagues in fiction and nonfiction but also doing some rereading and consuming lighter genre stuff like mysteries. I continue to dip into new releases, and I enjoy the ongoing challenge of my reading projects. Right now, I’m working through a few current Women’s Prize longlistees, as well as some past Wellcome Book Prize nominees and Women’s Prize winners, and I’m about to start a third #1920Club title. Plus I’m already thinking about my 20 Books of Summer (I’m considering an all-foodie theme).

 

Further reading:

  • Book Riot pinpoints seven categories of books to read during a pandemic.
  • Clare surveys the post-pandemic literary landscape.
  • Elle logs her pandemic reading and viewing.
  • Laura discusses pandemic reading strategies and distraction reading.
  • Literary Hub looks at parallel situations, including post-9/11 reads, to make predictions, and asks what your “go-to quarantine read” says about you. (I’ve read Kindred most recently, but I wouldn’t say that describes me.)
  • Simon thinks about what we can and should read.
  • Susan highlights some comfort reads.

 

What are your current reading strategies?

26 responses

  1. Thank you for the shoutout! This is a wonderful resource of book lists, too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some wonderful books on these lists and several I own but haven’t read yet. I’m currently reading “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa, and so far, it’s a serious combo of Ella Minnow Pea and If Cats Disappeared from the World, but without the laughs! Good though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy the Ogawa. Those comparisons sound promising — Ella Minnow Pea is one of my favourites, and on the stack for rereading. I saw a Slate headline about its newfound relevance: https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/memory-police-ogawa-coronavirus-social-distancing.html.

      Like

  3. I’ve had How To Be Alone and The Lonely City on my TBR for a while. It’s probably time to get to them!

    I loved that Literary Hub article, thanks for the link. I haven’t actually read any of those books recently but I think I’d pick The Overstory first 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know — would reading about loneliness make you lonelier, or less so? For all of these suggestions, I hope people know themselves well enough to decide whether a book suits them and their situation or not 🙂

      If you haven’t read Kindred, you must! I’m not generally one for time travel novels, but I thought it was exceptional and couldn’t read it quickly enough. I have another of Butler’s novels out from the library now: Parable of the Sower.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m actually not feeling that lonely – I seem to have a very active social life on Zoom 🙂 A lot of things I couldn’t take part in before with my London friends are now open to me, which is really nice!

        I haven’t read Kindred, but it’s definitely on my TBR.

        Like

    2. Glad to hear it 😀 I don’t enjoy Zoom or other video chat services, but it’s better than nothing. It just about worked for our neighbourhood book club last week.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d hate to use Zoom for work (some of my friends’ jobs now consist of 8 hours of Zoom meetings 😦 ) but I’m enjoying it for social things! I’m also running my book club through it.

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  4. Brilliant post, Rebecca, and thanks for the link. I’m steering well clear of dystopian fiction but then I generally do. My street Whatsapp group are proposing a baking sub-group whose members distribute treats every few days on a rota basis. We’ll all be the size of elephants by the time this finishes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same here: I’m wary of dystopian stuff most of the time, and would probably avoid it even more carefully now.

      What a brilliant idea! Our neighbourhood WhatsApp group has thus far been about pooling shopping list requests so fewer people have to go out to supermarkets, but I wouldn’t be amiss to sharing some baking — that way we’d get to try more things, and have less of any given treat sat around in our own kitchen.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An all-foodie theme sounds delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started bandying the idea around at the end of last summer. I think I have about 18-20 books on my shelves that would fit the bill, and I could always substitute in some Kindle books (or library books if that becomes an option later into the summer). I was being very generous with the food or drink label, so it wasn’t just foodoirs and cultural studies, but also novels with foodstuffs in the titles, or one each by Joyce Carol ‘Oates’ and Tim ‘Pears’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! I love that–the inclusion of lesser or even “nominal” foodstuffs!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So many great books in this post! I loved both Station Eleven and Year of Wonders. Spillover sounds fascinating, and reading about food always seems like a good idea.
    Mostly, I don’t think about it too much… I’ve been picking up what appeals, keeping what library books I have around in mind. It hurts that I can’t put anything on hold right now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a great strategy: just read whatever takes your fancy. Sometimes big piles of brand new library books can distract us, so maybe it’s good to have slightly reduced choice for a little while?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m trying to think of it that way! But, I have to admit, that I panic a bit when I want to immediately get my hands on a book and then remember that I can’t use the library right now…

        Like

    2. My library TBR is getting ever longer in the meantime, but they have suspended the reservation function.

      Like

      1. Same here. Which is probably just as well!

        Like

  7. Good lists! Julie Myerson’s Home is excellent and highly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear that — I did a search for “home” on my Goodreads shelves and was reminded of its existence.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The Goldfinch has been staring at me reproachfully from the bedside table from a year or so now! Maybe this is the time to give it a go!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t find that I have the concentration for really long books right now, but some people seem to be turning to them (or to long series). If you can get into it, I found it hugely absorbing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent suggestions! My reading has been slower (I expected the opposite) – partly I can’t focus on much, partly because my work has ramped up (which I don’t want to complain about when so many people have lost jobs but, in these strange times, the people who are working seem to be doing so under immense pressure…). I have the book How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell ready to start – seems like a good time to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great that you have lots of work coming in. I’ve had a reduced amount. In the first week of all this, I happened to have NONE come in, which was unhelpful as it would have kept my mind busy with other things. I think overall I am reading a little bit more than usual. It will be interesting to see how the year’s statistics shape up.

      Like

  10. I like how you’d taken into account a number of different ways of responding. As you’ve said, some might be totally into novellas right now and others into multi-book sagas. And, as you’ve mentioned, the circumstances have introduced the possibility of being free to focus on one’s own bookshelves now (I still have a small stack of library books yet to finish reading, but the stack to be returned – the buildings are all closed too, so we cannot make returns now either – is above my knees, which would have required numerous renewals under ordinary circumstances. Are you getting through your library loans too? Even the university stack?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will definitely clear the public library stack, and make a dent in the university pile, too. My returns are in a Jenga stack on the far side of my bedside table! As I’ve done the last two years, I intend to make my 20 Books of Summer all books that I own, so it’ll be good to start getting into the habit this month and next.

      Liked by 1 person

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