From tales of pandemic to reflections on isolation, here is a shelf’s worth of books to keep you going during a quarantine
A good reading list for self-isolation requires several categories. You should read some of the brilliant pandemic novels that everyone is talking about, and some novels about being alone. You should also add some comfort reads, and poetry, and books about people being thoughtful and useful and kind.
Photograph: funky-data/Getty Images
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Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel
Once you’ve read Station Eleven, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. The 2014 novel moves back and forth between the first days of a pandemic that ends civilization, and the long aftermath, as small groups of survivors try to rebuild. One band of characters forms a post-apocalyptic Shakespeare troupe and they travel the wilds of Canada, staging old plays in exchange for food. The real drama of the novel doesn’t come from gore or gun battles, but from the protagonists’ constant reckoning with just how much they have lost. “Survival is insufficient,” they keep reminding each other, even as survival itself is far from guaranteed. It all feels terrifyingly plausible.
If you’ve read Station Eleven already, the author has a much anticipated new novel out this month: The Glass Hotel, about a global Ponzi scheme and a woman who vanishes.
Severance, by Ling Ma
Looking for a pandemic novel that’s also a satire of global capitalism? In Severance, the pandemic that ends civilization is the Shen fever, believed to have originated in Shenzen, China, the center of electronics manufacturing, and then spread through tiny fungal spores across the globe. The narrator is Candace Chen, who works in publishing in New York City, overseeing the Bibles division. Candace is sharp, sardonic, and before the world ends, slightly diffident. Somehow, she becomes one of the last people in Manhattan left alive, before fleeing into the wilderness in a yellow New York City taxi. As Alison Willmore, a film critic at Vulture, wrote: “We should all be reading Ling Ma’s Severance, not just because of the pandemic parallels, but because its heroine’s survival seems to depend on her resistance to nostalgia.”
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai
This is a novel about the long consequences of trauma and loss, set among a group of gay friends in Chicago at the very beginning of the Aids epidemic. It tells two stories in parallel, one unfolding in 1985, as Yale Tishman, a young art expert, begins to lose his friends to Aids, and the second in 2015, as Fiona, whose brother died from Aids in 1985, searches for her missing daughter, and must confront her unresolved grief. This is a gripping, fast-moving novel, a good choice for long days of isolation. I read it all alone in a cabin in the woods, and I forgot myself, and I could not put it down.
The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell
This multigenerational epic follows the intertwining fortunes of three Zambian families (black, white and brown) over more than a century, from the late nineteenth century into the near future. It’s a big, dazzling book, and Serpell’s ambition and humor will win you over from the very first page. This is not a pandemic novel, but the Aids epidemic shapes the stories of the later generations, and the novel as a whole is grappling with other forces that shape our current pandemic: colonialism, technology, stigma and secrets, the idea of Europe, the idea of Africa.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman
In this bestselling 2016 novel, women and girls develop the power to inflict pain or death on other people – men, mostly – with power that comes from their hands. It’s the opposite of a pandemic, but it has a similar ability to destabilize and remake society. This is not a relaxing novel: the women who develop the power sometimes develop it in response to horrific violence, including sexual violence, and so the novel is a chronicle of the pain and terror inflicted on women around the world, as well as their growing rebellion.
The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
In this 1992 novel by one of America’s most acclaimed science fiction writers, a graduate student who is part of a time-traveling history research group at Oxford is sent on an expedition to the Middle Ages and ends up in the middle of the Black Plague. Meanwhile, an epidemic is also spreading in mid-21st-century England. Have the time-traveling researchers infected their contemporary world?
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
Looking for a comfortable, classic work of historical fiction: Relatable Female Protagonist Takes on the Plague? Brooks’ bestselling novel from 2001 tells the story of a young maidservant trying to survive in a tiny English village in 1666.
The Training Commission, by Ingrid Burrington and Brendan Byrne
First published in 2019 as a series of e-mails, this speculative fiction novella is one of the sharpest explorations I’ve read of the collision between Silicon Valley, national security, and the rapidly disintegrating journalism business. The protagonist is a struggling freelancer whose older brother, a famous investigative journalist, was murdered on Facebook Live, during a second American civil war (which was popularly called “the National Shitstorm”.) It’s not about a pandemic, but its vision of a very plausible near future has many other features that you will recognize. You can read it online.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Before sexy, brooding Mr Rochester, before she ever heard anything about anyone in an attic, Jane Eyre survived an epidemic at a girls’ boarding school. And it’s this experience – witnessing the deadly greed, incompetence, and cruelty of the men who run the boarding school, and who put her and her fellow students at risk – that shapes Jane’s character and outlook. Jane Eyre is so much bigger and stranger and more compelling than the gothic love story that made it famous. If you’re lucky enough to be quarantined with someone else, read Jane Eyre aloud.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
This novel is narrated by a five-year-old boy, who has grown up with his mother in the single room where she is being held captive. For him, that room is the whole world, and everything in it is vividly real to him: the bed, his favorite spoon, the drawings that his mother makes for him. The love and inventiveness his mother shows in trying to give him a good life in that room will be especially resonant in this moment.
Real Life, by Brandon Taylor
Loneliness. Alienation. Mistrust. Science as it is actually practiced, so different from Science as an idea. The themes of Taylor’s elegant campus novel, which follows the life of a queer black graduate student at a primarily white university, are resonant in a pandemic, though there are no zombie battles, just an ambiguously contaminated experiment.
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
This classic children’s book from 1959 tells the story of a boy who runs away from home and learns how to live alone in the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains. He digs himself a burrow underneath a tree. He learns to fish. He tames a falcon. His loneliness is, for the most part, bracing and wholesome and creative. An excellent escape fantasy, and a reminder of the brilliant pleasures of solitary life (though few of those pleasures may be readily available in your apartment).
The Plague, by Albert Camus
You might think this slim novel is on so many pandemic book lists only because its title is literally The Plague. But it’s so much more than that: I like to think of The Plague as an unexpected guide to self-care. You can take breaks, Camus reminds us, even in the most intense and devastating situations. So go swimming! I mean, you can’t go swimming. You’re in quarantine. Listen to the Existentialists: take a bath.
Meditations in an Emergency, by Frank O’Hara
Just the poetry collection you need. Read the title poem here. “I am the least difficult of men,” O’Hara writes. “All I want is boundless love.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
In New York City, an alienated young woman tries to sleep through an entire year. This is a critically acclaimed book, beloved of many discerning New Yorkers. I would rather eat every back issue of n+1 than finish this novel, but you, dear reader, may like it.
Something that May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel M Lavery)
This essay collection, from one of the co-founders of the cult feminist website the Toast, is characteristically wry and winsome. Lord Byron! Evelyn Waugh! The Golden Girls! But there are real stakes to these essays, a real wrestling with faith, family, and transition. It’s a good book to read while quarantined, because if you cry while reading it in public, you cannot touch your face.
The Decameron, by Boccaccio
This collection of lively, bizarre, and often very filthy stories was first published in Italy in 1353. Boccaccio’s framing device is the Black Plague. His protagonists, seven women and three men, retreat to a villa outside Florence to avoid the pandemic. There, isolated for two weeks, they pass the time by telling each other stories, with a different theme for each day. Read a few of them. (The New Yorker has some advice on translations.) Or just make your group chat into a group call, and give everyone a theme, and see what happens.
(Source: The Guardian)