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:
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
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).
- 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?
Ed Yong is a London-based science writer for The Atlantic and is part of National Geographic’s blogging network. I had trouble believing that I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life is his first book; it’s so fluent and engaging that it immediately draws you into the microbial world and keeps you marveling at its strange yet fascinating workings. Yong writes like a journalist rather than a scientist, and that’s a good thing: with an eye to the average reader, he uses a variety of examples and metaphors, intersperses personal anecdotes of visiting researchers at their labs or in the field, and is careful to recap important facts in a lucid way.
The book opens with a visit to San Diego Zoo (see the exclusive extract following my review), where we meet Baba the pangolin. But “Baba is not just a pangolin. He is also a teeming mass of microbes,” Yong explains. “Some of them live inside him, mostly in his gut. Others live on the surface of his face, belly, paws, claws, and scales.” Believe it or not, but we are roughly half and half human cells and microbial cells, making each of us – like all creatures – more of an ecosystem (another term is “holobiont”) than a single entity.
Microbes vary between species but also within species, so each individual’s microbiome in some ways reflects a unique mixture of genes and experiences. This is why people’s underarms smell subtly different, and how hyenas use their scent glands to convey messages. The microbiome may well be tailored to different creatures’ functions, so researchers at San Diego Zoo are testing swabs from their animals to see if there could be discernible signatures for burrowing or flying activities, or for disease. I was struck by the breadth of species considered here: not just mammals, but also invertebrates like beetles, cicadas, and squid – my entomologist husband would surely be proud. The “Us” in the subtitle is thus used very inclusively to speak of the way that microbes live in symbiosis with all living things.
If I were to boil down Yong’s book to one message, it’s that microbes are not simply “bad” or “good” but have different roles depending on the context and the host. You can hardly dismiss all bacteria as germs that must be eradicated when there are thousands of benign species in your gut (versus fewer than 100 kinds that cause infectious diseases). If it weren’t for the microbes passed on to us at birth, we wouldn’t be able to digest the complex sugars in our mothers’ milk. Other creatures rely on bacteria to help them develop to adulthood, like the tube worms that thrive on Navy ship hulls at Pearl Harbor.
Yet Yong feels too little attention is given to beneficial microbes, and in many cases we continue the campaign to rid ourselves of them through overuse of antibiotics and taking cleanliness to unhelpful extremes. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that’s hostile to the ones we need,” he asserts.
The book is full of lines like that one that combine a nice turn of phrase and a clever literary allusion. In the title alone, after all, you have references to Walt Whitman (“I contain multitudes” is from his “Song of Myself”) and Charles Darwin (“there is grandeur in this view of life” is part of the closing sentence in his On the Origin of Species). Yong also sets up helpful analogies, comparing the immune system to a thermostat and antibiotics to “shock-and-awe weapons … like nuking a city to deal with a rat.”
History and future are also brought together very effectively, with the narrative looking backwards to Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope work and Pasteur and Koch’s germ theory, but also forwards to the prospects that current research into microbes might enable: eliminating elephantiasis, protecting frogs from deadly fungi via probiotics in the soil, fecal microbiota transplants to cure C. diff infections, and so on.
The possibilities seem endless, and this is a book that will keep you shaking your head in amazement. I’d liken Yong’s style to David Quammen’s or Rebecca Skloot’s. His clear and intriguing science writing succeeds in inspiring wonder at the natural world and at the bodies that carry us through it.
With thanks to Joe Pickering at The Bodley Head for the review copy.
An exclusive extract from “PROLOGUE: A TRIP TO THE ZOO”
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
(The Bodley Head)
All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome.1 They live on our surface, inside our bodies, and sometimes inside our very cells. The vast majority of them are bacteria, but there are also other tiny organisms including fungi (such as yeasts) and archaea, a mysterious group that we will meet again later. There are viruses too, in unfathomable numbers – a virome that infects all the other microbes and occasionally the host’s cells. We can’t see any of these minuscule specks. But if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps be detectable as a ghostly microbial shimmer, outlining a now-vanished animal core.2
In some cases, the missing cells would barely be noticeable. Sponges are among the simplest of animals, with static bodies never more than a few cells thick, and they are also home to a thriving microbiome.3 Sometimes, if you look at a sponge under a microscope, you will barely be able to see the animal for the microbes that cover it. The even simpler placozoans are little more than oozing mats of cells; they look like amoebae but they are animals like us, and they also have microbial partners. Ants live in colonies that can number in their millions, but every single ant is a colony unto itself. A polar bear, trundling solo through the Arctic, with nothing but ice in all directions, is completely surrounded. Bar-headed geese carry microbes over the Himalayas, while elephant seals take them into the deepest oceans. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, they were also taking giant steps for microbe-kind.
When Orson Welles said ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right’– a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
- In this book, I use the terms ‘microbiota’ and ‘microbiome’ interchangeably. Some scientists will argue that microbiota means the organisms themselves, while microbiome refers to their collective genes. But one of the very first uses of microbiome, back in 1988, used the term to talk about a group of microbes living in a given place. That definition persists today – it emphasises the ‘biome’ bit, which refers to a community, rather than the ‘ome’ best, which refers to the world of genomes.
- This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
- Sponges: Thacker and Freeman, 2012; placozoans: personal communication from Nicole Dubilier and Margaret McFall-Ngai.
My gut feeling: This book is a fine example of popular science writing, and has much to teach us about the everyday workings of our bodies. It’s one of my three favorites from the shortlist.
See also: Paul’s review at Nudge
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
And if you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
The development of the birth control pill: this seems like an odd topic for my first book review on the new blog, but I’ll go with it. I have a special love for nonfiction that incorporates many different genres: history, biography, popular science, sociology, and so on. (See my next-to-last paragraph for some other examples of books that do this well.)
This is an epic adventure starring four unlikely heroes: two middle-aged doctors, Gregory Pincus, fired by Harvard, and John Rock, a Catholic; and two older ladies, Margaret Sanger, who left her first husband and family and grew increasingly addicted to alcohol and prescription pills, and Katharine McCormick, whose mentally ill husband died and left her with a huge fortune she dug into the birth control movement.
From testing progesterone on rabbits to the desperate hunt for human test subjects in Puerto Rico and in a Massachusetts mental hospital, it is a tale full of surprises. When first presented to American doctors and the FDA, the contraceptive pill – then known as Enovid – was billed as an infertility drug: It regulated periods to make it more likely that women would then get pregnant after going off it. Pincus et al. conveniently failed to mention that it also prevented ovulation. I never would have expected a Trojan horse story.
Margaret Sanger was given a hero’s welcome on every trip to Japan, but she also had an unfortunate association with the eugenics movement – an inevitable offshoot of concerns about overpopulation? She once said that parents should have to apply for the right to have children just like immigrants have to apply for visas. The best random piece of trivia I came across here was that Prescott S. Bush, father of George and grandfather of Dubya, was the treasurer for Planned Parenthood’s first nationwide fundraising campaign in 1947. You can bet the Bush family has tried to cover that one up!
“Religion is a very poor scientist,” John Rock was known to say. The fight to have the Catholic Church change its position on birth control is an important background narrative in this book. The sexual revolution and the personal decision to contravene Catholic doctrine regarding contraception is also a major component of Quite a Good Time to Be Born, David Lodge’s recent memoir. It’s always fun when similar ideas come up in multiple books at the same time.
Jonathan Eig was previously known for his sports biographies, and there’s plenty of action and narrative here. Like the best science writers (Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, David Quammen in Spillover, Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, or Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Emperor of All Maladies), he tells a story rich with three-dimensional characters.
We have a family legend about a Swiss ancestor who admitted herself to a mental asylum (then euphemistically called a sanatorium) in upstate New York in 1922 rather than have more children. She already had nine kids (one more died in infancy); she was tired and overworked. If this was what it took to keep her husband from making her pregnant again, so be it. She and thousands of housewives like her never could have guessed that one day (in 1960, to be precise) a simple pill could limit their family size. This is what this book is all about: the quest to give women control over their lives.