What strange times we find ourselves in, huh?
I hope everyone is healthy and safe wherever you are in the world, and please, for the love of everything, listen to the medical HBIC who’s just trying to help us put this nightmare in the past. He knows that of which he speaks.
Lists are popping up with reading material for our time in isolation, from the New York Times asking authors for their “comfort reads” to bloggers sharing picks for books to uplift, make you laugh, cope with or distract from the surreal conditions we’re collectively facing.
Some excellent nonfiction titles have made those lists but nonfiction always deserves an extra boost (I’m biased!). Here are some I want to highlight from others’ lists, plus mine to fit your mood and atmosphere.
What nonfiction are you reading in your time of quarantine, lockdown, and social distancing? (The phrase “social distancing” plucks my nerves for some reason, more than the concept itself. Just me?)
On viruses and pandemics
My thoughts have wandered often to Richard Preston’s affecting Crisis in the Red Zone, his account published last year about the Ebola outbreak that began in 2013. In one haunting chapter, Preston warned that a virus far worse than Ebola would cross into the biosphere and we’re not anywhere near prepared for it. It was a prescient, unfortunately accurate observation. What he wrote about this scenario is eerie because much of it coming to pass now, less than a year after I read the book. It’s a sequel of sorts to his bestseller The Hot Zone, which covers the emergence of Marburg, the first Ebola virus to make the jump from animals to humans in the 1970s, along with the first US cases, of the Reston strain, in a primate research facility in Virginia.
Preston’s books are more narrative and not as scientifically rigorous as David Quammen’s, who I’m getting to, but they are very engaging and make reading about scary subjects fascinating without lessening their seriousness. I think they’re also good for at least getting people interested in the fundamentals of virology and how diseases spread, which is something we’d all benefit from understanding a bit about now.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – This one’s been referenced nonstop in news and scientific articles and even — to my surprise — in conference calls I had to listen in on, until I finally bought it. Its significance is in understanding how viruses including COVID-19 make the interspecies jump, and I hope it’ll cover more about what comes after this next pandemic than Preston’s did. Quammen is known for meticulously researched science writing that’s also accessible for non-sciencey types, and he’s called out Preston in the past for exaggerating for dramatic effect, so I’m interested to see how he approaches this topic.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson – I thought this might be overrated because I’m not as charmed by Bryson as most, but I was so wrong. Bryson picks out some of the most intriguing and noteworthy moments from our history of medical and anatomical understanding and developments and tells them in the most readable, educational, and entertaining way. It’s written for the layman, which I appreciated, but it’s unlikely to blow a doctor’s mind. I’m pretty sure everything you’ll learn here is only fascinating if you’re not already well-versed in medicine and medical history. Still, that’s probably most of us. Bryson touches on disease and how our body copes, quoting another eerie warning from doctors about how we’re not prepared if a flu strain goes wrong, and the information here is worth taking in.
Getting right with isolation and solitude
Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton – Volatile Rune shared a list of books on solitude and isolation, and I second her recommendation for this one. It’s pensive and somewhat melancholy, but I find reading something melancholic can soothe such feelings, or at least cancel something out instead of deepening them. Reading about it makes it seem universal instead of your own private, personal pain. Sarton’s writing is ultimately hopeful and celebratory and helps you beat a little path to your own inner peace. Like Sarah Ramey perfectly captured, there’s no growth without descending into your own darkness and confronting what’s there, and that’s exactly what Sarton does, a helpful demonstration for facing our own sometimes unsettling quietude right now.
The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich – No one parses loss, grief, and the healing value of time spent alone, especially in the howling-wind middle of nowhere, like Ehrlich. I marked up innumerable beautiful passages in this memoir about her time on a Wyoming farm after her partner passed away. It’s lyrical, resonant, and evocatively written, with a deep sense of finding peace and resolution, whatever strange or unexpected form those may take.
The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga, by Sylvain Tesson – The French author retreated to a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, fleeing never-named but hinted issues he’d left behind in Paris. This journal of his self-imposed exile and soul-searching over six months is sardonic yet sensitive, alcohol-soaked and just the right amount of philosophical.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey – Bailey survives a mysterious illness with the help of a snail living on her windowsill, which taught her to appreciate the overlooked in the everyday and the wonder of a little, slow life. It was so quietly reassuring and centering. I’ve already given this book to two friends and would give it to everyone if I could.
Solace in Nature
Under the Sea Wind, by Rachel Carson – Claire @ Word by Word has been sharing fantastic “Reading Lists for Total Confinement” (hee!) and my favorite is her list of nature-inspired reads, where I learned of this one, Rachel Carson’s personal favorite of her own books. Claire describes it as poetic, lyrical nature writing, which sounds lovely.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams – This is another from Claire’s list that I’d just happened to buy after seeing it on someone else’s lockdown reading list that I can no longer find (was it yours? Tell me!). Consensus: it’s perfect for the moment. This is a memoir about Williams inheriting her mother’s journals upon her death, which were blank. With her singular way with words, she weaves nature observations into reflective, universal meditations about women and violence and love and sex and so much more. Reading this before bed each night has been such a soothing, warming experience. I’m glad to have found this one at this particular moment.
Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History, by Douglas Preston – Douglas Preston’s first nonfiction book allows you to visit New York’s beloved, storied Natural History museum, with narrative explorations into the wild tales behind some of its most well-known — or sometimes not really known at all — exhibits and objects. It’s perfect armchair traveling and immersively distracting.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard – Dillard narrates a year in her life in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, observing nature and contemplating her own place in the world. I can’t describe it better than that, and you should just read it anyway. It deserves its modern classic status.
Uplifting and Funny
The endlessly knowledgeable Robin shared a librarian-curated list of “UpLit” — “feel good” reading recommendations with a Drive list of suggested titles grouped by genre. Jo @ Book Skeptic also has a wonderful list of funny books for staying cheerful during lockdown, and I have a few to add.
David Sedaris is on the UpLit list linked above with the caveat “He gets a little dark,” which, fair enough, but personally I don’t like to exclude darkness from humor because you can’t exactly banish it from your life. Better to laugh about it as it is. Me Talk Pretty One Day, one of his essay collections, is one of my forever favorites, one I’ve returned to again, again, and then a few times more over the years.
But you can’t really go wrong with any of his essay collections if you need a hilarious distraction (here’s my review of his most recent, Calypso). I found his journals, Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, almost painfully funny yet deeply affecting as he navigates his young adulthood. If you’re journaling throughout lockdown you could do worse than seeing how he did it for decades.
Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood – I feel like I beg people to read this all the time, but Lockwood’s story of moving back in, married, with her parents (including her Catholic priest father) is sorely underrated, hilarious, surprisingly meditative, and poetically written (because she’s a poet). Now’s the time to read this and Sedaris at home because they’re the kind that will draw looks for laughing-aloud-while-subway-reading.
My Life in France, by Julia Child – If ever there was a master of turning life’s lemons into a multi-layer fruit-topped meringue despite first dropping it on the floor, or for keeping a smile on your face while you curse someone out, it’s Julia. You can take notes from her. This book brought me so much joy. Julia doesn’t sugarcoat the frustrating issues she dealt with, either from colleagues, professional setbacks and doubters, having to live in places she didn’t love, or failed recipes. But she puts everything into perspective, and is so spirited and uplifting. This book was like a forcefield of happiness around me for weeks after I read it. Plus, it helps scratch the dreaming-of-far-away-places itch everyone is feeling right about now.
The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay – The poet writes a year of tiny, simple delights from his life. It’s quirky, maybe even odd, warmly funny, and instantly mood-elevating in a lot of little ways that will help you find some subtle magic in your most ordinary everyday.
The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, by Viv Groskop – Yes, Russian literature is infamous for being a total downright bummer, but Groskop hilariously highlights the sunnier, life-affirming lessons that can actually be drawn from some of the darker, drearier elements of human nature and the cruel world, as the Russian classics authors saw it.
I didn’t get much out of that NYT comfort reads piece. It was a little, shall we say, New York Times-y. That is, taking itself extremely seriously, and despite being authors’ personal picks, I think some of them missed the point? Or are just a little odd? I didn’t spot a lot of comfort there in any case, although everyone’s different and we all turn to different sources for what we find comforting, so maybe that was the point? I don’t know. What’s comfort reading for you? I’m obviously biased towards food-related ones, but comfort food reading seems like a no-brainer right now.
One of my favorite recent ones has been Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett: authors’ essays about the meals that saw them through troubled times, including their (sometimes quite humorous) recipes. It feels like a celebration of just making it through life, ugly spots and all. The blend of diverse contributor backgrounds made this one really special as well, in that we’re all different and all the same kind-of-way. I think of stories from this book all the time, they’re just so relatable and affecting.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin — This book is balm for the soul. I reread parts of it on bad days for instant doses of comfort and re-centering. Colwin has such a warm, embracing personality, that cliched writer you want to be friends with. Although her recipes are scattered loosely throughout, this one can win over even those who don’t normally gravitate towards foodoirs. She’s cheerfully funny, sensitive, and such a lively, celebratory person that I don’t know anyone who’s read it and hasn’t fallen a little in love with her.
Mary Oliver’s poetry has been bringing me a lot of comfort lately, but that’s just what it does anytime. Her essay collection, Upstream, is richly poetic nonfiction that celebrates the outdoors, spring, and the little nuances of life while still turning softly inward, in that way that Oliver was so wonderfully gifted at doing.
What nonfiction has been helping you through these uncertain days?