I won’t be the first to tell you that with the COVID-19 pandemic we’re living in unprecedented times with many of us living under the kind of massive lifestyle haul we may never have seen before. There’s a lot of pressure going round now about how to #hustle and stay on the #grind while we’re all staying at home, and I’m here to tell you to ignore that. Sure, it’s great to maintain a regular schedule when all the world’s gone to hell. Keeping on top of work and staying organised can be great if it makes you feel more in control and like this whole situation is more manageable. But if all you’re doing is surviving right now, that’s more than okay too! This is a global pandemic, not a few bad sick days — it’s important to remember that, strange as it may seem, staying at home is the big achievement and if you don’t do anything more than that, you’re still doing enough. It’s more than okay to while away the time curled up with a good book and your beverage of choice! To that end, here’s my non-exhaustive list of recommendations for books to get you through social distancing.
For when you want to pretend you’re living in the normal world for a while…
One of the most buzzed about releases of 2018, Sally Rooney’s novel about the relationship between two young Irish people from high school to university is almost painfully realistic in it’s portrayal of interactions between young people today. The depiction of class conflict in Ireland weaves seamlessly with the tangible depth and indefinability of the relationship between Connell and Marianne, creating a novel that constructs experiences so palpably real you feel as though you’re reliving memories that were never yours. Rooney situates her novel so completely in the real world and in the hands of real people that to read it is to feel completely enmeshed in the world as it was a few years ago. As well as being a quick read, Normal People has an adaptation headed to Hulu at the end of the month, so once you’re sick of quarantine reading, you can default back to some quarantine binge-watching.
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
This 2019 release more or less exploded into the Romance and New Adult scenes and a page or so into this book, it’s easy to see why. McQuiston’s novel is a love story between Alex Clairmont-Diaz, First Son of the United States, and Prince Henry of Britain. This set-up is every bit as delightful and outrageously fun as you can imagine, but what really got me about this book was the setting — an alternate version of 2016, with Alex’s mother presiding as the first female President and running for re-election. Alex and Henry’s (I cannot stress this enough — utterly, completely, wonderful) romance unfolds against the backdrop that feels so real and so close to our own but altogether more hopeful, more brave, more optimistic for the future. I ended up sobbing by the last 10% of this as it left me with a life-affirming sense of belief in our own “present day” and the feeling that maybe, things will one day really be okay. Better than okay.
For when you want to finally read that one book…
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Booksellers have reported huge spikes in online sales for what they’ve dubbed “bucket-list” books as people surge to stock up on those books they’ve always meant to get around to reading and finally have the time for — I’m doing the same thing! Those books we call “the classics” are inevitably a popular choice for these lists, and really depending on your tastes and what you have or haven’t read, anything written before 1900 could go here. I’m biased however and going to recommend one of my favourite Victorian novels. Emily Brontë’s Gothic romance is packed full of terrible people doing awful things to everyone around them and it’s brilliant. Endlessly quotable, this novel is so easy to get swept away and and give your imagination over to. To boot, most of the novel takes place between two houses and just goes to show that staying at home is anything but boring.
Jane Austen is another author who’s likely to pop up on a lot of bucket lists. Everyone has their favourite Austen so to try pick just one to recommend will inevitably fall short, but Emma is particularly well-suited to a time when we’re all stuck in our own homes, with the same group of people day-in, day-out. The novel operates on the miniature scale of the village of Highbury and its residents, and for the time you’re reading it, nothing in the big wide world outside it is anywhere near as important as the details of Emma’s latest matchmaking schemes, or who said what to who else at so-and-so’s dinner party. It’s a remarkably self-contained world, one that feels as though even if there were a global pandemic going on elsewhere, it wouldn’t matter so much to Miss Emma Woodhouse so long as she could win her next quarrel with Mr Knightley. If you enjoy it, Autumn De Wilde’s charming 2020 adaptation has been released early on demand so you can enjoy the delights of empire waistlines and a pastel colour scheme from your own home.
For when you want an adventure from inside your own house…
Gaiman’s creative and creepy children’s novel has become something of a classic, as has the weird and wonderful 2009 stop-motion adaptation produced by Laika. Even if you’re not a child, or if you have already read it, this is a particularly pertinent time to pick this story up. The tale of Coraline Jones encountering a host of strange neighbours with stranger stories, a group of ghostly children, and a whole parallel universe all by exploring her new house is a spine-tingling reminder that mystery and magic and mayhem all lurk under our beds and in our cupboards and within our own four walls, if onl we’re willing to look for them.
Another (albeit much longer) children’s book, Funke’s novel which has been translated from the original German tells the story of a girl called Meggie who discovers her father, Mo, has the ability to bring characters and objects from books to life just by reading words aloud…for a price. It’s an enchanting celebration of the power of words and the transportive abilities of books, which we’re all relying on now more than ever before. Richly imagined and instantly immersive, it’s exactly the kind of escapist fantasy that’ll leave you just a little bit convinced that your portal to another world is just a hair’s breadth or a page’s turn away.
For when you want to lose yourself in another world…
The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons
Full disclosure: there are a fair few people who will not like this book — it’s susceptible to a fair share of very valid criticisms I won’t try and debunk. But this sweeping wartime romance is so epic and melodramatic in scope that it’s impossible not to get utterly enthralled in the every-turbulent, eternally angsty love story of Tatiana and Alexander as they navigate a forbidden romance against the backdrop of wartime Russia. This book maybe hefty inside, but you’ll probably tear through it — it’s remarkably easy to lose yourself to the currents of swoon and and drama that propel the currents of the book and let them carry you all the way to the end. It’s the literary equivalent of a binge-worthy ITV period drama.
In her 2018 follow-up to her bestselling debut, The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller once again returns to the Greek and Latin epics of the Classical world, this time using Homer’s Odyssey for her inspiration. Miller takes on the story of the originally villainous figure of the witch Circe turning her into one of the most vividly rendered, sympathetic, complicated and — ironically — completely human narrators of recent years. Her simple yet lyrical prose is both evocative of the epic poetry that inspires the poem and deeply intimate, wrapping the reader firmly into Circe’s internal world as she makes the journey from minor goddess to powerful witch and from girl to woman. The fact that most of the book takes place during Circe’s exile alone on the remote island of Ogygia and explores her day-to-day journey to find meaning and purpose in life as she finds herself alone and bound to one place means that you might find a startlingly recognisable experience in a very different world than our own.
For when you know that everything is upside down and you’re just trying to roll with it…
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh’s second novel, published in 2018, is set in New York City in 2000 and follows the nameless female narrator, a privileged twenty-something, who decides to try spend an entire year in drug-induced sleep in effort to “reset” and get away from the ennui that underpins her perfect-on-paper. The prose is biting and darkly hilarious, and the book revels in exploring the ugliest, bleakest, most draining parts of life when the whole world feels miserable and doing so in a bizarre, funny, but ultimately deeply humane way. It’s a deeply cathartic read for the era of social-distancing, acknowledging that you probably feel like crap, but also reassuring you, somewhere deep down, that maybe that’s okay.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Clive Barker’s quote on the cover of Gaiman and Pratchett’s cult classic assures us that “The Apocalypse has never been funnier”, and such a novel could not be more appropriate at a time like this. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud reading a book as many times as I did while reading this one. Gaiman and Pratchett together are literary alchemy, producing a narrative voice and cast of characters that crackles with imagination, wit, warmth, something very twisted, and, of course, outright hilarity. An Angel and a Demon have to team up to save the world, a young man finds himself recruited for a strange family business, and no one know where the antichrist is — the whole thing is bonkers and unlike anything else you’re likely to have read. If it feels to you like the world’s ending, this book will make sure you see the funny side. And if you can’t get enough of the end times, an adaptation starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant hit Amazon Prime last year for your bingeing pleasure.
Let me know if you read any of the books on this list, I’d love to hear what you think about them! What’s on your social distancing reading list?