A useful tip for retaining some semblance of sanity right now: take a break from reading the news and pick up a good book. Over the past few months, perhaps you’ve become more familiar with the Times app than you ever anticipated possible. Reading provides escape to an external head space and is one of the few activities that hasn’t really been affected by the pandemic.
In the beginning of stay-at-home in March, frequently recommended titles included Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, suggesting that under lockdown, readers sought books as a segue into their new reality.
But as we emerge from our homes, stretch our limbs, and squint at the sun, it’s essential to measure progress against the pandemic beyond a return to our old lives. The pandemic has cast a glaring light on the inequalities and failures of America’s many systems and institutions—healthcare, academia, and the economy, among others—and the urgent need for their reform. Here’s a list of books to spark fresh ways of looking at age-old problems.
Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
This collection of essays delivers nuanced takes on issues at the intersection of racism and misogyny, like white appropriation of Black women’s bodies in pop culture and the high maternal mortality rates of Black mothers. In essay after essay, McMillan Cottom interrogates the relegation of Black women as academics, mothers, members of the working-class, and voices of reason on politics, with a striking balance of sociological research and anecdotal experience.
The House of God by Samuel Shem
A hospital’s senior resident bestows nuggets of wisdom upon its interns: “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse,” “If you don't take a temperature, you can't find a fever.” Following this unsound advice, an intern fortuitously shirks unnecessary medical treatments and is celebrated for his healthy patients before the demands of his profession push him to a psychological breakdown. While the novel is a work of satire, it speaks to the toll of extreme stress, difficult working conditions, and long hours on doctors’ health.
Want by Lynn Steger Strong
The declining value of college degrees torments Elizabeth through her work at a charter school and as an adjunct professor. Despite being born into wealth and having earned an Ivy League PhD, Elizabeth, and her husband, are members of a disillusioned middle class who grew up with the promise of the American Dream only to find themselves drowning in student and medical debt as adults. After filing for bankruptcy, Elizabeth eschews her responsibilities to her job and family, beginning with ditching work to read in a cafe or go to a museum, and gradually withdrawing from those around her.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
In the final work of Shirley Jackson, three members of the Blackwood family are spared from a murder by-way-of arsenic poisoning that kills off the rest of their kin. Townspeople believe the eldest sister to be guilty, thus ostracizing the three from the village. In isolation, the remaining Blackwoods live in relative peace, that is, until an estranged cousin arrives for a visit.
Florida by Lauren Groff
How does the geography of where we live shape our state of mind? Across 11 short stories, Groff illustrates a landscape that is at once domestic and feral, and the characters are as ruled by Florida’s ecologies as they are an intrinsic part of them. In “The Midnight Zone,” a mother falls and concusses her head in a remote cabin. Her two young sons debate walking to town to get help, but a panther circles the cabin, so they try to keep her awake by telling her stories.
Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette
The last of humanity are harbored on a train circumnavigating the globe in the aftermath of an ice age. Rear cars house the abundant poor, while those at the front enjoy imprudent luxury. Unrest inevitably erupts in this French graphic novel, which was translated to English in 2014, 32 years after its publication, and is the basis for Snowpiercer, director Bong Joon-ho's film released that same year.
Severance by Ling Ma
A flu-like virus sweeps across the globe—sound familiar?—morphing its victims into zombified creatures of repetition. Those afflicted try on clothes or brush their hair or set the dining room table, over and over again. The protagonist makes for a horrible (read: millennial) survivalist. She consults Google on “how to survive,” build a fire, and shoot a gun. When she flees New York for the countryside, she ends up in an abandoned mall in Chicago under the tyrannical rule of a self-appointed patriarch.