Thank goodness for books. While extended time in close proximity with spouses and children due to social distancing might be testing our sanity, at least we can retreat into a good book.
Humans have long turned to storytelling in dark times, whether in drawing stories of hope and plenty on the walls of a cave to allay fears of outside threat or the desire to watch a comforting episode of Friends after a difficult break up.
Philosophy Talk asserted that throughout history, one reason for the consistent value of storytelling in societies was that it was an important source of escapism. “Maybe the function of stories is to give us a way to avoid our troubles by entering imaginary worlds. Stories engage us, they distract us, and they entertain us. Getting lost in a good story is a great way to relax and escape reality.
An article in The Atlantic claimed that storytelling helped people feel less powerless. “Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness.
Interestingly, it is not just comforting stories that we choose to read in times of disaster. As the number of coronavirus deaths climbed, Margaret Atwood asked her Twitter followers whether they would like suggestions of a feel-good read or a plague story. Many chose the latter.
And so, here is a list of books that you might offer you comfort, escapism, or a vision of a dystopian future, while you’re social distancing. You might also have seen the recommendations on 10 Daily.
A good laugh offers an antidote to stress and anxiety, so why not find it in the pages of a book? These suggestions will make you laugh out loud and fortunately, while you’re social distancing, there won’t be the risk of alarming fellow commuters when a snort of laughter escapes.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. While there is some heartbreak in Less, and certainly a fair degree of angst, ultimately it is a hilarious account of the lows of writing life. Author Andrew Sean Greer has a sharp eye for absurdity, of which he senses much as he travels the world to attend often half-baked literary events.
Let’s Talk About Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. I had never read any David Sedaris books before this one, and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t sample his genius earlier. The king of social observation, Sedaris had me laughing out loud as he wrote about his father’s eccentricities, his experience buying a stuffed owl and his experience buying condoms in Costco.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. As in Sedaris’s work, the near and dear are the source of ample humour in this novel about an English family’s extended stay in Corfu. I still can’t get the image of their arrival in the small town, accompanied by all the local strays, out of my head.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Sure, it might not sound like an uplifting novel, but don’t judge this book by its cover. The novel about sisterly love, loyalty and murder is surprisingly funny and unmistakably of our times, as the protagonist tries to clean up after her murderous sister’s transgressions.
Feel good stories
Even though there is something satisfying about feeling torn apart and crushed by a heart wrenching novel, in times of unpredictability and fear, it might be worth taking a break from harrowing fiction to read a feel-good novel that leaves you feeling uplifted. These are the bookish versions of Friends and Kath & Kim, and will put a smile on your face, no matter what is happening outside the front door.
The Rosie Project series by Graeme Simsion. I don’t want to issue a spoiler, but I think that everyone can guess that these books starring the endearing genetics professor Don Tilman will end well. In the first novel, Dr Tilman sets out to find a wife using a scientific approach. Both Rosie and Don are irresistible, and together they are a match made in heaven, but not without some initial false starts.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. The title of this book is indicative of its outlandish premise, of a businessman that attempts to attract tourists to Yemen by introducing salmon fishing. This sets the tone for a book that embraces the ridiculous and never takes itself too seriously. Just the recipe for uncertain times.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Is there anything more relaxing than reading one of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books? It is impossible not to love the perpetually unruffled Mme Ramotswe, and the cases she is asked to solve are always intriguing, but never greatly troubling. McCall also evokes a setting in Botswana that harks back to simpler, kinder times.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. If the idea of a bookshop on the bank of the Seine isn’t seductive enough, in The Little Paris Bookshop there is also the ability of the bookseller can select books to solve the reader’s problems to add to the enchantment of this novel. While the central character of the book might be dreaming of a lost love, somehow we know it will end well for such an appealing character.
It might not be possible to leave home, but books offer an opportunity to feel like you’re somewhere else. Nothing makes the time move more quickly than being absorbed in a tense mystery, an extravagant romp or a magical adventure.
The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan. The Good Turn is the third book in Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series that also includes The Ruin and The Scholar. These page-turners, set in small-town Ireland, feature a central mystery that ultimately explores and exposes police corruption, are a welcome distraction from empty supermarket shelves, alarming news stories, and irritating spouses, without being scary enough to trigger a whole new set of worries.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. The high life of the uber rich in Singapore that Kevin Kwan depicts in Crazy Rich Asians is intoxicating, extravagant, and frequently ridiculous. Reading this book is like a party attended by world ’s most glamorous, and occasionally, captivatingly, unstable. You won’t feel alone during this romp, but you will feel like putting down Crazy Rich Asians to get a bit of ‘me time’ after reading about the outrageous shenanigans of some seriously loaded extroverts.
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. With the potential of weeks of isolation ahead, now might be the time to launch yourself into this blockbuster series. You might think that Harry Potter is just for kids, but they are just as riveting for any age group. While you’re reading about Hogwarts, Hedwig, Hagrid and Harry, you’ll feel far removed from the threat of coronavirus, and wishing that the social distancing could last longer. The Nevermoor series by Australian author, Jessica Townsend is another novel if you’re after an easy, imaginative and engaging read.
The Nowhere Child by Christian White. The premise of Christian White’s debut thriller – a child who is kidnapped and found years later on the other side of the world – is enough to make anyone desperate to know more. Set between Australia and the US, The Nowhere Child is an exploration of identity, memory and trauma, and is impossible to put down.
In times of catastrophe, sometimes it is comforting to read about the worst case scenario, so why not indulge in some apocalyptic fiction? No lesser authority than Margaret Atwood recognised this strange attraction, and offered her suggestions of non-fiction about pandemics: Rats, Lice, and History by Hans Zinnser; Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond; and 1491 by Charles C Mann. Here is some apocalyptic and pandemic fiction that might offer further incentive to stay at home, safe from contagion.
The Road by Cormac Macarthy. With its grim and deserted landscapes, the setting of The Road resembles shopping strips around Australia. Then there is the search for dwindling supplies of food and looted grocery store, and the separation of survivors into the bad (whose modern counterparts have stockpiled enough pasta to last the decade) and the good (who are merely trying to find a packet of pasta to go with their bolognaise sauce).
The Plague by Albert Camus. The Plague, is set in a small village in Algeria, where rats begin to die in the streets. Eventually, a doctor treating patients recognises the symptoms of the plague. Albert Camus’ classic novel is a book of hope and despair, as villagers react to the disease in different ways, some shutting themselves off emotionally to deal with the deaths they are witnessing, while others flourish due to the new sense of shared experience among the villagers.
Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Australian author Lucy Treloar offers a dystopia of a different kind in Wolfe Island, which tells the story of a woman who is resigned to her fate as the island that she lives on is slowly falling into the sea as a result of erosion. However, this book is not just about land being engulfed by the ocean, but also explores the social breakdown accompanying the physical disintegration.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Combining magical realism with the really scary, One Hundred Years of Solitude is not the usual plague story, but includes the story of the insomnia plague that descended on the fictional town of Macondo. Gabriel Garcia Marquez claimed that everything he wrote in his books was based on something he had known, experienced or heard, saying, “You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day.” It’s difficult to argue, right now.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders tells of the brave inhabitants of Eyam in the UK who made a tough decision to stop the spread of the disease. It has a familiar ring to it, although without Netflix and the scuffles over toilet paper in the supermarket aisles.