7 Books We're Reading While in Quarantine
From modern classics to presidential bios, here's what we're reading in isolation.
As we all continue to acclimate to the uncharted territory of social distancing and self-quarantine we currently find ourselves in, it's important to find any upside to these otherwise uncertain and anxious times that we can. And one of the benefits of our newfound existence as homebodies is the opportunity to finally find some time to crack open a book for a change. Whether you take comfort in historical nonfiction or prefer to be swept away by a great novel, we've got some recommendations you're sure to enjoy. Here are the books us Best Life editors are reading—and mostly loving—while in quarantine.
A Widow for One Year by John Irving
Staying connected to people is my number two priority during self-isolation (right after staying healthy), so when a friend suggested that we start a two-person, virtual John Irving book club, I was in. Irving (The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp) is far and away my favorite living novelist, and there's something about the doom that hovers over his interwoven, Dickensian plots that feels just right for this moment in history.
For our first selection, we chose his 1998 novel, A Widow for One Year, which follows the life of future novelist Ruth Cole from her four-year-old observation of her grief-stricken parents' emotional warfare to a book research trip to Amsterdam that leads to her witnessing and helping to solve a murder. Darkly comic and impeccably written, it's a book I can't wait to revisit, along with The Door in the Floor, the 2004 Tod Williams feature film that adapts the first third of Ruth's story.—Sage Young
Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
I know, I know, it’s a little on-the-nose. And learning about plagues throughout history probably doesn’t qualify as the most comforting distraction at this exact moment in time. But the thing is, I believe that sometimes the best way to deal with your fears is to face them head on, and educating yourself about the history of pandemics may actually bring you some peace right now. It helps, of course, that Jennifer Wright is a very compelling and hilarious writer who makes this well-researched book a breeze to read.
If you’re trying not to think about our current situation at all, then no, I don’t particularly advise that you read Get Well Soon. But if you’re up for it, I think you’ll find that we have a lot to learn from history. It turns out human beings have been making the same mistakes when it comes to handling outbreaks for millennia—but that also means we have been fighting back against them for the same amount of time. Not every one of them has a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of hope to be found in the repeated reminders of humanity’s resilience and capacity to endure. Also, just be glad we’re no longer using the “exploding frog cure,” one of many fascinating but gross details to be found herein. —Louis Peitzman
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
It’s probably worth noting right out of the gate that this is not a particularly sunny story. In fact, more often than not it is downright grim. It also happens to be deeply funny, irresistibly brash, and near impossible to put down.
Eileen, the eponymous narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, works a dead-end job at a juvenile correctional facility and goes home to the unkept house she shares with her alcoholic deadbeat of a father. In her free time, she shoplifts, stalks, and internally expresses her disdain for just about everyone and everything that crosses her path. She uses words like “invisible” and “doormat” to describe herself, but harbors hope to escape her dismal day-to-day for the bright lights of New York City. This, as she tells us at the outset, is the story of how she disappeared. And that's all I'm going to tell you.
A darkly comedic, twisted coming-of-age tale told with Moshfegh’s taut, beautifully stripped-down prose that will leave you equal parts disturbed and entertained, and with the impression that Eileen is anything but invisible. It's the kind of irreverent literary escape we could all use right about now—it is for me, at least.—Charlie Duerr
The Outsider by Stephen King
I’ve never found myself particularly compelled to read much of Stephen King’s horror oeuvre, save for the copies of Pet Sematary and Christine I stole from my older siblings and gave myself nightmares with as a young child. However, suddenly thrust into a real-life dystopian nightmare, tucking into one of King’s novels seemed like a more apt form of escapism than, say, cracking open my copy of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
Like all of King’s books, The Outsider is so deftly written that it’s easy to forget that, at its core, it’s a horror story. And while the book centers on the gruesome murder of a child, it’s just as much about a tight-knit community trying to reconcile what they think they know about one of its most beloved members and the horrible thing he’s accused of doing. So, while I may be stuck inside for the foreseeable future, at least I don’t think I’m currently being framed for murder. It’s really the little things that get you through in trying times. —Sarah Crow
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
An elderly friend of mine let me borrow this book a few weeks before all this madness began and, in hindsight, it seems fortuitous given that it is widely known to be one of the longest books of all time. Perfect pandemic material!
I’m only a few chapters (re:pages) in, but, at the moment, I would probably place it into the illustrious category of “books that are considered genius because they make no sense.” Like, I love experimental fiction, but he’s really just throwing words out like they’re M&Ms. I’m going to give it a chance, though. Based on what I’ve read about him, it seems like he was a pretty sensitive guy who succumbed to the perils of feeling self-isolated, so it seems poignantly relevant for what’s going on right now.
The book has also fallen apart into two pieces, which I’d like to think would please David Foster Wallace. The elderly lady who gave it to me asked me to take good care of it precisely because it has sentimental value since it “fell apart in Berlin.” She did not expound on that, but I found it kind of poetic. —Diana Bruk
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe
This book was actually a Valentine's Day gift. Yes, I know that's hot, and yes, I know I should have finished it by now. But here we are.
Alexis Coe's book isn't your standard George Washington biography. It has light tidbits like lists of Washington's frenemies and his most petty acts, and tackles why so many historians were obsessed with his manly thighs—but come on who isn't? Between these jaunty moments, it also exposes truths about racism, sexism, and the early days of our country.
In the opening pages, the book features a table that documents all the diseases our first president experienced throughout his life and their coinciding symptoms and treatments, many of which involved being in quarantine, which feels oddly comforting right now. The book notes that Washington was often the last one standing after any outbreak. He ate piles of hotcakes swimming in butter and honey every day, so I think that's what I'm going to do during this outbreak as well. —Allie Hogan
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen
As a science junkie and a crime-thriller lover, a science book that reads like a mystery novel is my perfect cup of tea. Peter Brannen’s book tells the story of the Earth’s five great mass extinctions that each wiped out at least 70% of the planet’s population. It is filled with the kind of science writing that’s well-balanced with interesting anecdotes and intricate research.
Fun fact: the giant asteroid wasn’t the lone gunman in wiping out the dinosaurs; the same CO2-driven climate change we’re facing now was also a major player in many of the worst five mass extinctions in Earth’s history.
Honestly, I got this book knowing I’m going to have to spend time with my climate-change denying and conspiracy-loving extended family. Taking some time to indulge myself with an information-heavy science book that I can use to destroy their insane ideas with facts is the ego-boost I need in this time of isolation.
Just kidding, I’m actually super non-confrontational and an utterly unskilled arguer. But seriously, if you’re the Ross Geller in your friend group, you’d love this book. —Adam Hadad