What to Read During a Pandemic

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Facing a period of coronavirus-induced self-isolation? Ana Kinsella presents a reading list to get you through – from books to read if you’re a fast reader, to ones to immerse yourself in if you like Joan Didion

Lately I’ve been telling anxious friends that there’s little to be gained from the endless scrolling we all do. It’s hard to stop, though, and so my own personal remedy has been to distract myself with a book. Put my phone away and pick up something to read instead. It’s not the cure for everything, obviously, but it can feel like a balm. And right now, in the face of the unknown, many of us could do with something that feels like a balm.

Also, when cooped up indoors, there’s something fulfilling about finishing a book, starting another: the simple satisfaction of the completed task. If you feel powerless and lost rattling around your home, I recommend it!

Anyway, books mightn’t be able to save us from a major public health crisis. But they might be able to help you feel a little less anxious in the meantime. Here are some ideas that might help you get started.

What to read if you’re a fast reader in need of a few door-stoppers:

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Weighing in at 784 pages, this baroque masterpiece traces a crooked line through modern America, linked together by the accidental theft of an enigmatic painting.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. A ridiculous book, all in all, but one that builds a layered, multifaceted view of New York through Wall Street and the legal system and a scandal that takes place late one night in the Bronx.
  • All three books of the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel: the equivalent of a long-running HBO boxset just waiting to be binged. If you were to listen to all three on audiobook, the running time would clock in at almost 77 hours, which, at a conservative rate of three listening hours per day, will still take you almost a month, by which point you should surely have thought of something else to read next.

What to read if you have a terrible attention span:

What to read if you want to read the books that feel like the equivalent of climbing Everest:

Why not read 10 pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses per day? Form a virtual The Golden Notebook book club with your Doris Lessing-loving friends? Set up an Infinite Jest Slack channel? Those books you’ve spent your life saying you’ll read? Now is the time to tackle them! Break a big book into small pieces and discuss it with like-minded pals along the route.

What to read if you’re hungry for the real lives of others:

Celebrity memoirs! The best ones are those that are gloriously indiscreet, the literary version of sitting next to a tipsy gossip at a plush party. Try these three.

What to read if you want a fantastical escape:

  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. The definitive master of speculative short fiction, these stories are strange and immersive and will definitely take your mind off reality.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley. There’s no magic in this novel, but there is something mythic and strange about the story of a father and his children who live a dark, dangerous life where the forest meets the town. A gothic slice of northern England that feels firmly like another world.
  • White Noise by Don DeLillo. A strange and stylish tale of contemporary dystopia.

What to read if you want big, complex family dramas:

What to read if you want non-fiction that feels like going on a journey:

  • To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, on how and why humans are trying to transcend humanity and venture into the realm of the robot.
  • The Recovering by Leslie Jamieson. Both an addiction memoir and a moral history of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jamieson uses this book to build a concrete argument for both sobriety and the literature of the drunk. By the way, it’s perfectly fine to read this with a quarantini in hand.
  • The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. It’s sort of a biography of Sylvia Plath and sort of a biography of biography itself, as Malcolm tries to find out who the late poet really was in the face of numerous contradictory narratives.

What to read if you like Joan Didion, but you’ve run out of her books:

  • Actress by Anne Enright. Enright is to Dublin as Didion is to California, and in her latest novel a grown daughter reflects on the strange and compelling life of her actress mother, as she moves through the decades and leaves a trail of emotional devastation in her wake.
  • The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher. The pioneering food writer writes the story of her life in meals, from a West Coast boarding school to various countries of Europe between the wars.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. A stylish and swift novel of pre-nuptial misery on a Californian ranch.