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20 Best Books to Read While Social Distancing From Coronavirus
Books inform us, educate us, enlarge us—but they also transport us. Now more than ever, many of us are looking to literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety. For some, now is the time to brush up on hard-hitting nonfiction about pandemics, but for others, now is the time to get lost in the balm of another world. If you’re in the latter group, we’ve rounded up a collection of engrossing reads that will take you to another place, another time, or another state of mind. From speculative and historical fiction to soulful works of nonfiction, these transporting books are the best medicine for strange times.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Simon & Schuster
Board a rocket to the ultimate frontier in Bradbury’s seminal classic, wherein mankind flees a ravaged earth and conquers Mars, only to be conquered by the red planet in return. This Mars is a dreamlike landscape of wasted cities, populated by a dwindling race of ancient, unknowable beings, all of it evoked in poetic, unearthly prose. Bradbury dismantles midcentury mythologies of American exceptionalism in these glimmering, unforgettable parables about human folly.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
Missing the natural world? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s immersive, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, will do you just as much good as a walk in the woods. In this wonderstruck memoir, Dillard bears witness to the passing of the seasons in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, where her lucid meditation on nature’s beauty and violence is at once scientific and spiritual.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
Take a madcap journey around the world in this unforgettable comic novel about an aging writer on a global adventure. Arthur Less, a middling writer on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, accepts every literary invitation available to him in an effort to outrun his ex’s nuptials. What follows is a picaresque adventure in which Greer masterfully blends absurdity, heartache, and pure, unfettered, laugh-out-loud joy, proving definitively that yes, literary novels can have happy endings.
Arcadia, by Lauren Groff
In this absorbing novel, Groff sets the scene in upstate New York circa the 1970s, where a group of idealists band together to form a utopian commune in an abandoned mansion. Our narrator is Bit, the child of a carpenter and a baker, who comes of age as the fortunes of the commune rise and fall. You’ll be just as enthralled by the seductive, myopic commune as Bit, who struggles to adapt to the real world when he inevitably must leave home.
The Seas, by Samantha Hunt
In a dead-end seaside town, a wayward young woman convinced she is a mermaid falls for a much-older Gulf War veteran. When the pain of unrequited affection lands her in prison, she goes to startling, fantastical lengths to stage an escape. Ethereal, spellbinding, and deliciously dark, this waterlogged novel will take you to the sirens’ rocks and back again.
The Changeling, by Joy Williams
Largely overlooked when it was first published in 1978, but now designated a singular classic, this otherworldly novel from an American master follows the life of Pearl, a flighty, mystical young mother who lives on a remote northern island with her abusive husband and his extended family. This mysterious, mist-enwreathed island, ruled with an iron first by the fearsome brother of Pearl’s husband and populated by feral children, is a literary destination like no other. When Pearl flees to Florida with her infant son, only to be dragged back to the island, a catastrophic plane crash swaps her son with a changeling child. What follows is a surreal, harrowing tale of motherhood, salvation, and time’s inexorable passage.
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer
In these three spectacular climate novels, VanderMeer sets his sights on Area X, a lush and remote landscape that has turned against humankind, producing brain-bending effects on scientists who venture into the territory to investigate. As the secrets of Area X reveal themselves not just to the scientists, but to the disorganized agency that monitors these expeditions, the bureaucratic and ecological consequences pile upward. Dreadful, Lovecraftian, and downright existential, these novels are a dizzying descent into a metaphysical wilderness leagues away from our lived reality.
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
In this superb, sexy novel, a young woman named Reno escapes the salt flats of her childhood and arrives in New York City, where she aspires to distill her obsession with high-speed motorcycles into art. After she falls in with the art world glitterati of the late seventies, her new lover, the scion of a powerful automotive family, takes her home to the radical and beguiling tumult of 1970s Italy. If you lament that you weren’t present for gritty loft parties during the glory days of SoHo, then this blistering novel is the book for you.
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Random House Trade Paperbacks
Escape to rural Maine in this brutal and beautiful collection of linked stories about Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher who defies easy definition. Olive is stern, sensitive, and inscrutable, struggling to feel compassion for the improbable ups and downs of her neighbors’ messy lives. Yet it’s in those ups and downs—the vicissitudes of marriage, aging, and loss—that Olive locates essential truths about how we live alongside one another. Shot through with transcendent moments of grace, this ode to the human comedy is Strout at the height of her gifts.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
Random House Trade
This dazzling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel turns the clock back to 1939, America’s golden age of comic books, where two Brooklyn-based cousins bootstrap it to the big time with their series about a fascist-fighting superhero. As Hitler’s evils spread through Europe, what follows is a wrenching, hopeful tale of the profound loss suffered by these young men, as well as their salvation through art. Chabon’s gifts of imagination and language are wondrous, making for a Technicolor adventure through the dream-making machinery of a glittering, bygone New York City.
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
In this big-hearted, phantasmagoric novel, thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree journeys through the haunted, otherworldly landscape of the Everglades on a quest to save her family’s embattled gator-wrestling theme park. Featuring singular settings and the most beguiling narrator you’ll ever meet, this exuberant novel is at once a remarkable work of magical realism and a paean to the power of American mythmaking.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
Random House Inc
Saunders’ debut collection remains one of his finest works, brimming as it is with black comedy and a remarkable symphony of unforgettable voices. In these dark, dystopian stories, expect to vanish into richly-imagined worlds ranging from historical amusement parks to demented virtual realities. In these absurdist spaces, Saunders mines poignant insights about our deepest desires, including our need for love and belonging.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s love letter to California’s verdant Salinas Valley follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two intertwined families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. In this epic, towering novel of multiple generations and biblical proportions, Steinbeck explores lofty themes of good, evil, and self-determination. Let its grandeur wash over you.
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
Random House Trade Paperbacks
The playful and arresting stories in this spectacularly weird collection feature fantastical elements including but not limited to haunted convenience stores, doomsday poker parties, zombies, and superheroes. In these unforgettable worlds, Link casts an intoxicating spell of humor and deep feeling, mixing the monstrosities of everyday life with the things that go bump in the night to reveal something essential about human nature.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li
From one of our finest writers comes a staggering collection of stories about Chinese and Chinese American individuals, all of them located in engrossing and singular settings ranging from the barren wastelands of Mongolia to a fast-food establishment in Chicago. In these powerful stories about the private vagaries of the human heart, Li illuminates something transcendent about the power of culture and place.
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Grand Central Publishing
With the epic sweep of Zola or Dickens, Lee chronicles four storied generations of a Korean immigrant family, beginning with a pregnant young woman’s decision to enter a marriage of convenience that ferries her to a new beginning in Japan. Her decision to leave home echoes across generations, all of it playing out against the rich tapestry of an ever-changing 20th-century Japan. The sheer bigness of this novel is majestic, as are its themes of joy, sacrifice, and heartbreak.
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
Escape to the storm-lashed coast of isolated Newfoundland in Proulx’s award-winning novel about Quoyle, a hack journalist who returns to his remote ancestral home with his two troubled daughters following the dissolution of his marriage. Sharply observed and deeply touching, this wry story of self-reinvention follows three generations of a complicated family through their stark, disappearing way of life near the end of the earth.
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
What better way to escape our current circumstances than to leave our planet and our reality entirely? In this stellar collection, one of the most award-winning science fiction writers of our time lines up nine stories of time travel, extraterrestrials, and alternate universes. Through lean, thought-provoking prose, Chiang manages to render stories about machines deeply felt—and deeply human.
The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante
This doorstopper quartet of novels is the seductive saga of a sixty-year friendship formed in desperate poverty, mired in delicious complexities, and complicated by the political strife of a changing Italy. Clocking in at approximately 2,000 pages, plowing through them may seem like an intimidating feat, but take it from us—once these bewitching novels have you in their spell, they’ll change your relationship to time and consume your waking hours.
Light Years, by James Salter
If you’re aching for dinner parties with loved ones, settle in with Light Years, Salter’s masterpiece about a midcentury Westchester couple whose marriage dissolves over decades. You’ll feel warmed to the core by the many scenes of leisurely, candlelit dinners, complete with free-flowing wine and rustic victuals. In dense, luminous sentences, Salter paints a crystalline portrait of life’s inherent beauty, only to deconstruct it through his acute illustration of time’s bittersweet passage. This rhapsodic novel from an American master, in which somehow nothing and everything happens, is a once-in-a-lifetime read.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.