What to Read in a Pandemic: Book Recommendations for Long Days

I hope this finds you well.

I usually start emails with that line, or something like it. A perfunctory sentence to soften the blow of whatever thing I’m about to ask for, remind someone about, describe. Something to make an impersonal message approximate the personal. It never really works.

I mean it here: I hope this finds you well. I hope this finds you in a circumstance where the biggest challenge you have to think about today is what novel to read (don’t worry, I’ll eventually get to some recommendations).

Me? Like most of us: not so well, but then, so very fortunate that a catalogue of the things and ways that are Falling Apart is unjustified and selfish. If you asked me though, for that list of my privileged complaints, I’d certainly include the closure of the physical branches of the library. Because what am I, if not so fortunate as to bemoan a limitation on what I can read. Or what R. can read. But then I am also so lucky as to have secret access to the library through unnamed sources, and friends who read, and continued income for panic purchasing books (which I did!). So again: complaints that are of convenience rather than true hardship.

Here’s hoping you have access to books, too. Maybe ebooks are your thing. Or you can do as I’ve been doing and you can ask friends for book swaps (and quarantine those books in your garage for 72 hours as S. insists I do). Or you feel like now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop (folks: now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop) by buying books. Whatever the case, you may find yourself with time to read like you haven’t had time to read recently (or, you may find yourself like so many others, like me!, balancing a full-time job with full-time childcare and so reading just a few pages every night and that is also okay). And so I’ve combed through the annals of Literary Vice and compiled this list of novels to get you through the months ahead. Some are funny, all are beautiful, none have anything to do with pandemics or panic or pans. I hope you find one or some of them suitably distracting:

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell at his most accessible, this young adult protagonist reminds us of the base requirement to be kind to one another.

Love and Summer: William Trevor writes ridiculously beautiful sentences and tells a small, poignant story that shifts the focus from the Big and Global to the small and particular.

The Sisters Brothers: The first of two Patrick de Witt recommendations, because de Witt is hilarious AND a genius and so laugh amid truly tremendous writing. Here with historical fiction that is so far from the present you can almost forget.

French Exit: Number two for de Witt, this one is equally funny, shorter, and more contemporary. Slightly more macabre though, so you know, brace yourself for mention of Death.

Let the Great World Spin: Interlocking stories that demand you focus while you read: an excellent exercise in mindfulness. Also beautiful writing.

Adrian Mole: The classic Sue Townsend series is delightful both for its humour and for the sheer volume of available words: probably a dozen books in the series? All funny, all smart.

The Goldfinch: I’d read anything by Donna Tartt right now as the books are sweeping and absorbing and entirely distracting. This one has one of the more compelling protagonists of recent memory and a truly gripping plot.

Us Conductors: I went a bit bananas with how much I loved this one when it first came out, and I still do – a bit more darkness in this one, but still fabulous writing and easy to get lost in.

Americanah: Uhhh this one might not fully distance you from the reminder of inequality and outrage, but nevertheless suggesting it here because it’s also funny, smart, absorbing and so worth reading.

The Bone Clocks: I melted down with joy reading this epic David Mitchell book (event? masterpiece?). It’s long, it’s involved, it’s the best writing on this list, and I dare you not to lose a week of this mess in reading it.

A Little Life: Okay, so if I just said Bone Clocks was the best, I take it back, this one. This one! Except this one is Dark Dark Dark and so maybe not exactly how you want to spend your quarantine. But So So good. And long!

Infinite Jest: A bit of a joke here, but honestly, if you’re ever going to read Infinite Jest (a book that took me the better part of a summer to read) it’ll be now. Cross it off the bucket list.

Song of Achilles and Circe: Both of these distracting mythological retellings are tremendous: great writing, absorbing plots and endearing characters.

Fleishman is in Trouble: Another funny one, modern moment, middle-class take down.


And if you can’t resist reading books about the end of things because you find that soothing, you can check out:

Station Eleven: A now-classic novel about the aftermath of a pandemic and how art and civilization are remade.

The Fifth Season: N. K. Jemison’s fantasy series that is So Good and gripping and about the world after the end of things.

The Great Believers: Not dystopian unless you count reality as dystopia: the HIV epidemic and the criminal ways suffering and death were/are ignored unless the privileged are at risk.

Let me know what you’re reading; or just let me know how you’re doing. Sending my love to each of you. xo


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