Whether you’re looking to sink into a comfort read, distract yourself with an epic, or take a mental escape to a different world, here are our top recommendations for what to read in self-isolation.
There’s nothing like a good comfort read — something that will make you feel warm and human and alive. These are our picks of books that are balms.
Little Women by Louise May Alcott: If Greta Gerwig’s triumphant film adaption proved anything, it’s that this tale of four sisters trying to navigate family, career and love in Civil War-era New England still resonates today. The close family bonds at the heart of this story are pure joy.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder: As we drift away from childhood, many of us begin to lose our natural curiosity for the inexplicable. Bewildering and enigmatic, Sophie’s World is a tender coming-of-age novel celebrating the fertile imaginations of youth, reminding us to question everything.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: This powerfully affecting book tells the story of a mother and daughter, estranged for years, attempting to mend their relationship — a heartfelt family saga that’s sweeping, unsentimental and utterly compelling.
Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh: Part memoir, part cookbook, this lively read from former Great British Bake Off star is the literary equivalent of comfort food, full of anecdotes, recipes and life lessons from a writer wise beyond her years.
These books are a reminder that there’s something better on the horizon.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: For years many of us have been told that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but what complete BS that is. This book is an illuminating collection of case studies detailing the extraordinary progress of people’s conditions once thought of as incurable.
How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell: Both a searing critique of the attention economy (e.g. social media and its attendant ills) and an investigation into the philosophy of place, this book provides thoughtful strategies to resist digital tyrannies and carve out space for creativity and rebellion.
Just Kids by Patti Smith: The punk poet’s chronicle of finding herself in 1970s New York is like a bible for creative fulfilment. Read it to feel that life — in all its messy glory — is still possible, no matter the odds.
Whose Story is This? by Rebecca Solnit: The master essayist is in dazzling form in this nimble and broad-ranging collection. A sense of unabashed optimism underpins these essays, highlighting that positive social change is not only possible but inevitable.
Sometimes in the midst of a crisis, you just want to read something in which the characters are facing hardships too. Whether pandemic or other disasters, here are some reads to get you through.
Aftermath by Rachel Cusk: Cusk is not the person to say life is peaches when it’s not. Written in the months after the writer’s divorce, her curt and unsentimental memoir on the dissolution of her marriage is provocative and refreshing.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay: With a mysterious pandemic at the heart of its narrative, Laura Jean McKay’s latest book of speculative fiction has taken on urgent relevance. Add this subversive, darkly funny book to your must-read pile.
Severance by Ling Ma: Many of the details of this blistering debut will ring eerily true: a world undone by a highly contagious illness where life has all but stopped. This is an unnerving, ruthless novel that understands the worst part of living through the apocalypse might be boredom.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa: On a remote and isolated island, things start to disappear from everyday life. At first, the losses are small, but soon the disappearances begin to stack up until life is unrecognisable. Reading it, in this particular moment, is eerie.
Distract yourself from your worries with sweeping, ambitious stories that will hold you enthralled for days.
Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton: Featuring the voices of hundreds of women, this book examines the way we adorn ourselves and how our sartorial decisions define and shape us. With interviews, essays, annotated diagrams and poetry, Women in Clothes prompts us to consider our relationship to and ideas about clothes.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Within this sprawling book lies 500 pages of a Korean family’s history in Japan — and it won’t be enough. The novel’s multi-generational narrative allows this story to unfold at a pace that is rich, measured and beguilingly peaceful.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A family saga spanning five decades, from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. You won’t be able to put down this engrossing, compassionate book until you’ve read the last page.
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A monumental novel on humanity and ecology, this book will make you reassess literature’s focus on people, and forever change the way you think about trees.
If your attention span can’t cope with a novel right now, a book of short stories or a slim novella can be the perfect thing. Dip into one of these reads.
Rebent Sinner by Ivan Coyote: Funny, heartbreaking and brimming with wit and wisdom, the new collection of essays, vignettes and poetry from Coyote is the perfect dip-in-and-out read for trying times.
The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab: At just 288 pages, this short story collection is easy to get through, but the impact of Kassab’s spare, heartbreaking prose will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Known for its deadpan and comic prose, Convenience Store Woman tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old supermarket worker who, like many of us, doesn’t fit into the neat and narrow confines of what society expects her to be.
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe: This collection of brilliantly realised short stories is best savoured rather than binged. Read one a day to let their understated beauty wash over you.
These reads will transport you, to other countries, other times, and other worlds.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer: The story of a loveable writer attempting to outrun heartbreak, this globe-trotting book whirls from New York to Italy to Morocco to Japan. Even better, it’s almost guaranteed to have you laughing within the first few pages.
Circe by Madeline Miller: This page-turning novel puts a feminist spin on Greek mythology, telling the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of the witch Circe. The result is a mythic tale that’s fresh, contemporary, and worthy of getting lost in.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien: Descending into the dark depths of Mordor with Frodo and the Fellowship, Tolkien reminds us to harbour hope in the face of fear, no matter how small and powerless we feel.
The Romanovs 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore: Informed by new archival research, this arresting chronicle unveils the private lives of twenty tsars and tsarinas forming the autocratic Romanov dynasty. With lurid accounts of murder, sex and intrigue, you’ll struggle to put this burly examination of power to rest.
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