For many of those lucky enough to be able to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, books have taken on a special meaning. COVID-19 book clubs have popped up to help readers feel connected to one another, group readings have brought new life to old poems, and—in this time of ambient anxiety—the value of losing yourself in a novel has never seemed more apparent. What follows is a selection of recommendations from The Atlantic’s culture writers and editors, with an eye toward stories that will resonate during a summer of continued social distancing and tentative reopenings. We’ve loosely grouped them according to literary cravings you might have: Perhaps you’ll decide on a breezy beach read to devour responsibly on your fire escape or a collection of nature essays that lets you explore the outdoors from your living room. Either way, stay safe, and happy reading.
IF YOU WANT TO GET LOST IN A PLACE
Wilderness Essays, by John Muir
For the past several years, my family has spent our summer vacations exploring America’s national parks. Acadia, Glacier, Badlands, Grand Teton, Yellowstone—they’re places as humbling as they are astounding, and our goal is to visit each one, eventually. When we canceled this year’s trip (hope to see you soon, Zion), I found some consolation in the writings of John Muir. And because the naturalist turned activist was so prolific—many of his writings were originally published in The Atlantic—I’ve been loving Wilderness Essays, a collection of the work he produced as he explored the western United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Muir had the eye of a scientist and the wonder of an enthusiast; in his observations, run-on sentences spill forth in adjectival ecstasies (“the vast forests feeding on the drenching sunbeams, every cell in a whirl of enjoyment”), nature transforms from a place into a character, and the whole tumult resolves in giddy benedictions. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” Muir urges. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” — Megan Garber
A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
A few weeks ago, I reread Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. A modern reworking of King Lear, the novel hinges on a farmer’s decision to pass his land to his three daughters. As in the play, a disagreement between the patriarch and his favorite daughter causes the family (and the father’s mental acuity) to unravel. Smiley’s take explores the cultural and political shifts that ripped through Middle America in the 1960s and ’70s. Here, long-trusted ways of life show signs of breakdown: Farmers have started using chemicals that poison water sources; banks offer loans that can’t be repaid; individuals find themselves at odds with one another across generational and gender lines. The issues Smiley grapples with—public health, inequality—take on renewed relevance as a result of the pandemic. But more than anything, A Thousand Acres is about a place on the cusp of change—a place that the reader knows won’t look the same after the last page is turned. — Thomas Gebremedhin
The Age of Innocence, by Edith wharton
The Age of Innocence re-creates the New York of the Gilded Age that Edith Wharton grew up in. Central Park is known as the Central Park. A character muses of the Met, “Some day, I suppose, it will be a great Museum.” Plans for a subway provoke skepticism and fear. No bridges connect the different boroughs, and no skyscrapers grace the Manhattan skyline either. In other words, the city feels odd and off the mark—not too unlike the New York of the coronavirus pandemic, where scenes that were once taken for granted (sold-out Broadway shows, a busy Grand Central Terminal, hordes of tourists downtown) have vanished. Wharton’s classic, which turns 100 this year, reminds readers that our ideas of New York—and, perhaps, of everywhere else—are based on impermanent, fragile illusions. With their loss, an age of innocence may disappear, but another age, with new normals and truths, is sure to replace it. — Ena Alvarado-Esteller
Tarka The Otter, by Henry Williamson
“Twilight upon meadow and water, the eve-star shining over the hill, and Old Nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.” This, the first line of Henry Williamson’s 1927 novel/shamanic trip, Tarka the Otter, is, strictly speaking, a sentence without a subject. Like the entire book—which Verlyn Klinkenborg, in his introduction to a new New York Review Books Classics edition, calls “a vanishing act of the highest order”—it is fundamentally and rapturously decentered. Don’t be fooled by the heron’s Kiplingesque name. Williamson’s animals are not people, they are not symbols, and they do not speak. They are life itself, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, manifesting here as a heron, there as an otter, and there again as Deadlock, the slavering, otter-hunting hound. Forget the news; read Williamson, and plunge into the back-brain. — James Parker
If You’re Looking FOr a Page-turner
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
Set in a drizzling and benighted aftertime (nuclear war happened hundreds of years ago), written in lumps of half-destroyed English that make perfect sense when read aloud—“I dont think it makes no differents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self”—Riddley Walker is a book you’ll carry with you forever. The eponymous hero is like Holden Caulfield crossed with the narrator of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy: He makes his way; he pierces reality. Read it not for the pandemically appropriate apocalypse vibe, blah blah, but because it’s a work of complete fiction—an entirely made-up world with its own gravitational integrity, its own language, its own codes, its own myths, its own poetry, almost its own sense of humor—that breaks upon our world like the truth. Dazzling. — J. P.
The Memory police, by Yoko Ogawa
With The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa has written an astonishing novel about an island on which objects—perfume, harmonicas, boats—disappear. More precisely, the idea of the objects goes away: The physical objects are disposed of, but, disturbingly, people’s memories of them (and of their signifiers) all abruptly fade too. Ogawa, a spare writer who often withholds details, never explains how this inexorably shrinking world came to be, which only deepens its eeriness. The authoritarian squad that monitors residents to ensure that they aren’t harboring illicit memories recalls the Eyes of The Handmaid’s Tale. But the true drama lies with those characters who can, for some reason, remember the objects that have vanished, and who fight to keep their environs from getting even smaller. A semiotician will have fun parsing the story’s logic, but I also found it dreamy to float along on Ogawa’s simple, propulsive sentences. — Jane Yong Kim
Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas
The exceptional students selected to attend Catherine House, an elite postsecondary school, begin their life anew when they arrive on campus. But unlike their peers at other institutions, who return home for holidays, Catherine House attendees spend their entire three years sequestered. Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel weaves a thrilling, compact story that builds dread slowly. It can feel claustrophobic at times, as though the narrator, a rebellious student named Ines, is trying to crawl her way out through its pages. Thomas incorporates elements of science fiction as she begins to reveal the darkness at work on campus, but not before readers are eased in with some classic hallmarks of prep-school fiction. The students of Catherine House might eat, sleep, and dress the same way, but they also sneak around to date, party, and misbehave like others their age. Does it really matter that they’re trapped? — Hannah Giorgis
The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
I don’t recall ever reading a thriller cover to cover, and that’s a confession, not a boast. I’m excited to think that I’ve found the perfect way into the genre: Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, the book that has everyone calling him prophetic. It’s about a pandemic, similar to the 1918 flu, that begins in East Asia. As the disease wreaks global havoc, an American epidemiologist heads to Indonesia to investigate and … well, I’ve only dipped in. Wright is the first to say that his novel might be just what readers don’t want right now—the antithesis of escapist fare. But I can already tell that, in fact, it will offer a kind of relief I yearn for these days: It’s crammed with expertise, thoroughly absorbed and deployed in a timely way. What else would one expect of Wright, an astonishingly good reporter and researcher who knows how to tell a gripping story? If only the same were true of many of the politicians in nominal charge of the coronavirus crisis. — Ann Hulbert
IF YOU NEED SMART OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LIFE
Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose
Durga Chew-Bose’s essay “Since Living Alone” starts with an anecdote about using a brown paper bag and a banana to ripen an avocado. She doesn’t overstate this achievement; even so, she notes that “there is … a restorative innocence to waking up and discovering that something has changed overnight.” The stillness of isolation allows her—and, perhaps, her quarantined readers—to notice the small marvels that surround humans every day, even in a lonely apartment where spectacle becomes “the droop of plant leaves, a black sock poking out of my blue dresser.” Throughout her essay collection, besides sharing these micro-examples of her interior life, Chew-Bose reflects broadly on her coming of age as a first-generation Canadian woman with Indian parents. Too Much and Not the Mood magnifies the subtle forces that mold identity. — Myles Poydras
Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, by Geoff Dyer
There are a couple of reasons to love Geoff Dyer. One is his prose, which at this stage in his practice has become a high-tech delivery system: pure wit, right to the brain stem. Another is the gorgeousness of his arc across the literary firmament—the emancipated, screw-the-editors figure he cuts, monographing away about whatever tickles his fancy. In Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, his latest, Dyer turns his attention—all of it, zooming madly in—to the clunky ’60s war thriller Where Eagles Dare, dilating and inflating and comedically depressurizing the movie in a sequence of scene-by-scene riffs. It’s a deep dive into shallow water, exhilarating to behold. Opening scene: A plane is droning over the snowy mountains. It contains Clint Eastwood. It also contains Richard Burton, who is nursing (Dyer conjectures) the mother of all hangovers: “As they approach the drop zone he looks at the blinking red light, pulsing like a headache, like a warning of imminent liver failure.” — J. P.
The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits
I’m all for documenting history in real time, and journaling through a pandemic has self-evident merits. But the practice can carry added pressure for professional and aspiring writers, who may find themselves questioning the literary value of recounting their days. Heidi Julavits has been there. With her 2015 book, The Folded Clock, Julavits set out to write a different kind of diary, “an accounting of two years of my life” that unfolds in dated entries presented out of chronological order. Julavits is not recording events so much as the strange, maddening, wonderful sensations of being alive. She uses daily mundanities to prompt poignant, unexpected explorations of her own history and psyche (browsing the internet “is proof that I am giving myself what I need, when I need it”). And the pleasure of having access to Julavits’s intimate thoughts comes with a bonus: armchair travel to a German villa, a haunted Italian art colony, and beyond. — Amy Weiss-Meyer
Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, by R. Eric Thomas
Don’t be fooled by the confetti-laden cover art: In Here for It, the playwright and Elle columnist R. Eric Thomas isn’t always in a celebratory mood. This essay-collection-slash-memoir dissects Thomas’s identity as a gay black Christian man, examining pivotal stages in his life—his childhood at a predominantly white school, his code-switching in college, his coping mechanisms after coming out of the closet—to better understand why he often didn’t feel gay enough or black enough, man enough or simply good enough. Thomas writes with a delightfully refreshing, self-aware voice, toggling between playful (a treatise on why cities are superior to suburbia) and poignant (a look back at a formative friendship) without inducing tonal whiplash. And the process of self-discovery embedded in his contemplations feels universal in spite of its specificity. With Here for It, Thomas finds the humor in the ways people learn to endure this unpredictable world. — Shirley Li
IF YOU’RE IN THE MOOD FOR A QUEST
Dawn, by Octavia Butler
In one of her notebooks, the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler wrote, “Tell Stories Filled With Facts … Make People Feel! Feel! Feel!” These directives might very well be the subtitle for Dawn, a classic of Butler’s that is full to the brim with both facts and feelings. A young woman named Lilith wakes up on an alien spaceship and finds herself charged with a gargantuan task: preparing a group of humans for their eventual return to a postapocalyptic Earth. This, while under the gentle thumb of the Oankali, an extraterrestrial people that have their own agenda for helping another species. Butler details, with relish, the physiology of the Oankali while hitting on multiple truths about human nature; through its protagonist, Dawn examines how we can trust strangers and how we’re able to adapt to circumstances beyond our control. Meanwhile, the masterful descriptions of Lilith’s psychological journey from an individual to collective mindset may feel particularly apt for our strange summer of gradual reopenings. — J. Y. K.
Days of Distraction, by Alexandra Chang
Alexandra Chang’s 25-year-old narrator is in what may feel to many like a familiar position: listless and lonely, stuck on her laptop at home, and tied a little too closely to a partner who suddenly seems like a stranger. She’s left an unfulfilling tech-journalism job to follow him to grad school, and the cross-country move—to a place where she’s not only “just the trailing girlfriend” but also one of very few Asian Americans in town—prompts her to reconsider what it means to be in an interracial relationship. As she searches for perspective on that question in old press clippings and early Chinese American archives, her discoveries and reflections appear in vignettes that mimic the fragmentary rhythms of online research. Days of Distraction is a novel that puts political issues in individual terms. In a cultural moment of forced self-analysis and rising anti-Asian racism, it’s not just resonant but also timely. — Rosa Inocencio Smith
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, by Saidiya Hartman
“Except for the castle, no visible signs of slavery remained,” Saidiya Hartman writes of her trip to Elmina, the first European slave-trading post in sub-Saharan Africa. “All about me, the commerce of everyday life proceeded in its banal course.” A chronicle of her journey along a slave route in Ghana, Lose Your Mother is full of these understated moments of whiplash: Elmina Castle, for example, is no mere footnote, but an intricate, towering structure. Each year, it draws tens of thousands of visitors, some of whom pose for photographs in its harrowing Door of No Return. Even now, it remains an economic engine, its existence as foundational to Elmina as the transatlantic slave trade was to the United States. Lose Your Mother is not a light read, but Hartman’s prose is as vivid and intimate as it is arresting. Like Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, Hartman’s book looks across the Atlantic to reveal the haunting history that unites its coasts. — H. G.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
If you’re hoping that this 1974 Nebula Award winner will help you escape our current reality, beware that the word quarantine appears on page 2. Hang on, though, as Ursula K. Le Guin does fastidiously build a new world for the reader to get lost in—or rather two new worlds. A physicist-philosopher named Shevek journeys from an inhospitable moon populated by nobly struggling anarchists to the opulent and unequal planet those people fled a few generations earlier. He hopes to reconcile the political disagreements that caused the lunar secession, and—thank the stars—the ideological contours probed by Le Guin’s starchy yet swooning prose only hazily conjure modern debates. Still, at its base, the novel searches for a social structure that can ethically withstand both boom times and crises. All the while, Shevek ponders a metaphysical question that feels especially pressing amid a historic emergency: Does time move linearly or cyclically? His eventual answer, mind-bending but earnestly argued, is a comfort. — Spencer Kornhaber
IF YOU’RE CRAVING HUMAN CONNECTION
The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard
“The Transit of Venus is a wonderfully mysterious book,” Anne Tyler wrote of Shirley Hazzard’s third novel, in a review that I helped copy edit when I was starting out in journalism in 1980. I was indeed mystified. Hazzard’s etched prose was mesmerizing, but why were Tyler and others quite so enthralled? My memory is of feeling that the novel’s moral dramas—featuring two orphaned Australian sisters whose life and love trajectories diverge over the decades following their arrival in postwar London—were eluding me. I want to find out what I missed, especially given the recent wave of attention to Hazzard, who died in 2016: Her collected short stories will be published in the fall, and the novelist Michelle de Kretser’s On Shirley Hazzard is just out. And fans of Transit of Venus are especially zealous about rereading it, the better to appreciate its stringent insights into how people can fail to rise to the fateful moments that await them. “Its call to reckoning,” de Kretser writes, “is a matter for adults.” Surely the time is ripe for me to try again to heed it. — A. H.
Hex, by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Hex, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s hypnotic second novel, is an intimate study of both loneliness and connection. Its narrator, Nell, freshly out of a lukewarm relationship, has been expelled from her Ph.D. program after a labmate’s fatal accident; even more frightening, she’s lost the approval of Joan, the distant, demanding thesis adviser she adores. As Nell struggles ahead with her research on ways to neutralize toxic plants, her notes to Joan become a record of another, equally dangerous chemistry: the network of frustrations and desires that sets the two scientists at odds with the people closest to them. The resulting novel is tightly plotted and compelling. And if Nell’s upended life—adrift, solitary, devoted to lethal substances, and frequently spent pantsless on her apartment floor—resonates a little painfully with the reality of quarantine, her darkly funny observations and obsessions offer an absorbing escape. — R. I. S.
Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
“What is a friend?” the characters in Conversations With Friends ask themselves. “What is a conversation?” A few months into quarantine, I find myself wondering the same things. So Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel feels cathartic right now. On the one hand, the central character, Frances, and her ex turned best friend, Bobbi, regularly engage in such earnest debates that you might suddenly think isolation isn’t so bad after all. (A boozy discussion with a new friend flits from the Catholic Church to “pay-gap feminism.”) On the other hand, Frances is so sweetly cerebral and unintentionally funny that being inside her brain for a few hundred pages—as she embarks on an affair and tries to conceive a career for herself after college—is fairly delightful. (“We can sleep together if you want,” she tells her would-be lover in one scene, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.”) And Rooney’s scenes of wine-soaked sparring and self-aware heartbreak evoke a powerful appreciation for human connection, both its highs and its lows. — Sophie Gilbert
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
Fire children? Yes, fire children. Nothing to See Here is an enchanting novel that I sped through, initially because of its charming premise, and then because of Kevin Wilson’s deft world building. The 28-year-old Lillian Breaker—bright, acid-witted, and underachieving—gets a cryptic job offer from a wealthy high-school friend to take care of her “wild” stepchildren, who catch on fire when they are upset or excited. Wilson handles this unrealistic state of affairs with wonderful realism, as Lillian tries using gels, fire-retardant fabrics, and meditative breathing to keep her charges from bursting into flames—all while questioning whether what she’s doing is helpful or soul-destroying or some amalgam of the two. The bonds between caregiver and children grow riotously and joyously, and as Nothing to See Here enters its final act, it lays claim to an evergreen but potent notion: You find yourself by finding connection with others. — J. Y. K.
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