Nonfiction Reading for Locked Down Times

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 Zonehis 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 Zonewhich 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.

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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.

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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

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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 oneIt’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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Book of Delightsby 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.

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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.

Comfort 

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.

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One of my favorite recent ones has been Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writersedited 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.

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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.

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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?

26 thoughts on “Nonfiction Reading for Locked Down Times

Add yours

  1. Great list. I love the sound of a wild snail eating. This I have to try. Also Priestdaddy sounds comforting. You’ve reminded me that Ihaven’t yet read the Annie Dillard book which is on my kindle.

    Thanks for the mention. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Sedaris is my favorite. I read everything he puts out. Good suggestion! I also really enjoyed “The Body” by Bill Bryson. Currently reading the new Erik Larson “The Splendid and the Vile” about WW2 and Churchill based on diaries. Great so far!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same, I would read anything Sedaris writes. I can’t wait for the next installment of his diaries. The Body surprised me because I haven’t been so crazy about his books in the past, but that one was just amazing, wasn’t it?I’m not an Erik Larson fan but I’d love to read something about Churchill so I might have to pick that one up eventually. Glad to hear it’s so good!

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      1. Thank you for this list, something for everyone I think. I am drawn to the funny ones – the Sedaris. Also Priestdaddy. Was tempted to get that one about woman scientist in race against time to save her partner from deadly virus – Predator, think you recommended that one once. But perhaps bit too close to home these days…I recently enjoyed Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, letters from a jaded English professor. My comfort reads would be the Nancy Mitford books, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred and all, also Diary of a Provincial Lady. Currently deep in a true crime book, The Murders at White House Farm which is excellent, I recommend to any other true crime aficionados.

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    1. I just finished The Body yesterday – SO good! He made it so easy to absorb what could’ve been be very dense information. Definitely get that one if they have it! I’m glad you got something out of the pandemic-related ones, I hesitated to add them in case it would feel like too much but I’ve found them really helpful right now!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. And I’m the opposite, those two don’t bother me and social distancing is just irking me for some reason. I don’t even know why!

      Priestdaddy is so good! I read it a couple of years ago and I still sometimes think of specific lines from it and start laughing. Would love to hear what you think of it! And glad you liked the May Sarton and Gretel Ehrlich too, you should try Terry Tempest Williams if you haven’t read her before. She’s similar in tone and topic, I think you’d like her.

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  3. So many great recommendations—but then, no surprise there! The Hot Zone is waiting on my shelf and I’ll probably get to it next week. I know we were just talking about how medical-focused books can be overwhelming, but there’s something about Preston—maybe his blockbuster storytelling style?—that, while still horrific, doesn’t seem so emotionally taxing. OR I’m just desensitized at the moment and nothing matters 😂 And while everything you listed sounds perfect right about now, I’m especially interested in Dinosaurs in the Attic. Museum work is so fascinating. Hope you’re getting a bit of nonfiction comfort reading in!

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    1. The Hot Zone isn’t so overwhelming like some of those medical-horror books we avoid because despite some scariness around the virus’s effect on humans particularly at the beginning, it’s more about the Reston strain in the US which only affected other primates. Although the scientists there didn’t know that at the time so there was a lot of tension and he plays that up in the storytelling! Crisis in the Red Zone was more upsetting because it revolves around people, and especially seeing what the doctors went through was devastating. But his storytelling is just incredible, I think he deserves a lot of credit for even getting people to pay closer attention to these topics. AIthough I started Spillover and it’s also fantastic and so well written, with a few snarky jokes from the author as well, which makes this whole thing a bit more bearable 😂 I got Demon in the Freezer after you recommended it and I want to get to that one soon too, although I might need something sunnier after Spillover.

      I think you would love Dinosaurs in the Attic, it is such a treasure of a book. I just moved back to NYC and I love going to the museum but unfortunately who knows when a trip will be possible. So it’s a good alternative 🙂 Hope you’re finding plenty of comfort reading and staying safe and healthy too!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I totally forgot that you were moving! I hope everything went well … this has to be a very interesting (?) time to finish up a major move. Hopefully you’re stocked up on some great reads.

        That’s such a good point about Preston: his storytelling ability, as tense and action-packed as it is, almost allows you to slip into thinking of it as fiction—not that it’s NOT true. But it’s sometimes like reading a Robin Cook medical thriller. It’s funny, looking back, Demon in the Freezer wasn’t all that scary while it was reading it, but after I finished it and had a minute to digest the full horror, it became one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. There’s something magical about that from a writing standpoint. Thank goodness for authors like him and Quammen for making us think about all of this in an accessible way.

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      2. It went as well as could be expected (moves always stress me beyond belief) but geez, what a time for it!

        What you’re describing was the same thing for me reading the Preston books I have, they were so, I hate to say, entertaining while reading and then afterwards while really thinking about it and considering the implications it was downright terrifying. But that really is such affecting and powerful writing. I think you’d like Spillover, it’s very well written and comprehensive and I just feel better being informed about these things. He makes it seem less scary somehow.

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