Reading in the Age of Quarantine

A Book List for the Year of COVID-19

A few days into quarantine and I’m feeling unmoored. Cars are still driving by my partner’s and my little cabin by the road, but science has decreed that interacting with the individuals in those cars is dangerous right now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m on the side of science. We’ve filled our cabinets with ingredients for a host of meals to last us through this spell. We bought a chess set and spend our mornings on the porch, silently shuffling pieces around the board and sipping coffee. We wash our hands to songs in our heads, Toto and the Grateful Dead.

We’ve done our part. But I still feel off. The days feel long and lethargic, while also humming with nervous energy. Something significant is happening and it feels as though the world is not going to come through the same. So I’ve turned to books, as I often do, seeking understanding and escape. A little of both is healthy, keeps the mind assured and at peace. Though new titles are good, I’ve been returning to some old books recently. Books that left impressions and feel particularly important in the midst of this upheaval.

If you’re feeling uneasy as well, let me suggest these titles to you. May you find comfort, peace, enlightenment, and grace in their texts. Happy reading and good luck in this uncertain time.

Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman is one of my most loved illustrators and modern philosophers. The title of this book speaks for itself. Principles of Uncertainty is a visual playground of brightly colored illustrations depicting the bizarre, the old, and the everyday. Kalman is a master at helping readers find beauty in things often overlooked. Have you ever noticed the intricacy of a chair or the endearing way old people walk down the street? Principles of Uncertainty will show you. But this book is not just a picture book. It is a treatise on life and the uncertainty that surrounds it. 

“My sister and I go to Israel during the short, furious, the world-is-doomed war.
For a wedding.
Because you CANNOT postpone weddings in Dark Times — Especially in dark times.
Who knows when the light will come on again.
Are things normal? I don’t know.
Does life go on?

Parts of this book are funny, some parts are lovely, others are sorrowful. But each part speaks to everyday hope in beauty and the power of embracing mindfulness at this time.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

This book I haven’t personally read, but comes on a strong recommendation from my partner who finished it just the other week. Timely and prophetic. He had this to say about it:

I read it prior to all the quarantine measures and now it feels more like a manual. Doing nothing is a counter-measure to the progress-driven society. 

“This book is about how to hold that open place in the sun. It is a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy…”

It’s the manifest dismantling of the attention economy and its logic for productivity. An inspiring vision for anyone caught in the loop.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

One day I will write a full-length review of this because it’s truly one of the most spectacular books I’ve ever read. For now, a few sentences will have to suffice. Underland digs deep, into the past, into the future, and into the hidden realms carved out in the earth beneath us. Macfarlane, in lilting sentences, takes readers on a journey to the underland, places that include ancient burial sites in the Mendips, a labyrinthine city beneath the streets of Paris, a skyless river winding through caverns in Italy, moaning moulins in Greenland, and the eventual resting place of much nuclear waste in Finland. 

“Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).
Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).
Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.” 

At once a childlike celebration of our planet and a melancholy warning of the havoc we humans are wreaking, Macfarlane has written an indelible elegy of the hidden natural world. And we could certainly all do with a little more nature right now.

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Every book Karen Russell writes floors me with its imagination and absolute mastery of language. Orange World was no different and, in fact, might be my favorite of her collection. This is the book I’m touting as an “escapism” of sorts from the news notifications that are continuously knocking. Not because it’s feel-good fluff, but because you absolutely cannot think of a single other thing while reading these stories. They are captivating beyond words, drawing you in with fancifully strange scenarios, odd and unpredictable characters, and metronomic sentences of vibrant, cutting metaphors. 

“Middle C to E minor. Orange to pink to blue. The song sweeps in front of the bow. I crutch around the drowned beams that fill the planetarium's lobby, singing at the top of my register. Echoes shower into me. My spine feels ignited by them.”

Orange World will sweep you away to a world you only vaguely recognize. It may not always look pretty, but it will always read beautifully.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Here’s another one for the environmentally-minded. The Overstory is power(s)ful (looks like I’m making puns now) and it should be noted that this title does not shy away from the problems of the world. However, it approaches them in such an elegant and verdant way that one does not feel overwhelmed, but inspired. Simply put, this book is about trees. Not simply put, it is about a whole host of characters in the midst of who’s lives the trees are planted.

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling the water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
A chorus of living wood sings to the woman:
If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.
The pine she leans against says
: There’s something you need to hear.”

What follows is what needs to be heard by us all. A plea from the trees building through the chapters all the way to the crown of branches arching toward the sun. An intense, but propellant read.

Brute by Emily Skaja

Brute is a collection of poems. A collection of brutal poems. A collection of succinct, piercing, raw poems. They are lovely and fulfilling in a way that hurts. Beautiful pain that unites readers in its loneliness. Skaja has written something humbling and awakening that breathes and speaks all on its own. Her sentences bite and soothe, moan and sing. Like the hand of a girl in the mouth of the wolf. 

“Three notes: long, long, short—your call for me. In a prism of light I walk backward. I see a house turn into a bull turn into a house. I shake myself, wincing. I hold onto the facts. You’ve been dead eighteen years.” (Elegy with Black Smoke)

I’ve been reading from this book every day despite the burn of the words. I think the poems have acted as a cauterization, stemming the open bleeding and making me feel a little bit more human in the midst of the upturned world.

The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self-Care by Emma Loewe and Lindsay Kellner 

I bought this book a little over a year ago and have held it close since. Everything about it is lovely and calming. The words, the colors, the illustrations by Charlotte Edey. The Spirit Almanac is grounding, approaching ritual from a place that everyone can feel a part of it. The book is divided into seasons beginning with Winter and ending in Autumn. After an enriching explanation of the historical and mental significance of each season, Loewe and Kellner offer a series of supportive and fulfilling rituals to complete in and around certain dates throughout the months. The rituals are simple. They encourage support and comfort and care drawing on the wisdom of the self, discovered long ago by our ancestors, people who lived vastly more in tune with the vicissitude of the seasons than we do now, great consumers of climate control as we are. But The Spirit Alamanac reunites us to those senses. And with the time we have on our hands, in our homes right now, we could spend some long, deep moments reconnecting nature with our bodies and minds.

“The spring equinox, like the autumnal equinox, is a time of transition — it’s so important to stay grounded, to sync with the season, and to know that brighter, warmer days lie ahead.”

A brighter day is coming when we can once again open the doors of our homes and welcome friends in with cheek to cheek hugs and warm kisses, but until then, taking the time to soothe yourself with ancient rituals can keep you feeling mentally at ease in the coming weeks.