It’s 11 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve spent hours upon hours scouring through Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, not to mention the unhealthy amount of YouTube that you’ve consumed. You’ve scrolled to the bottom of your Instagram explore page (who knew it had an end?) and you’ve watched every reality TV show in existence, multiple times.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over, so what now?
It might be time to pick up a book, and I’m not talking about the microbiology textbook that’s been slowly collecting dust in the corner of your room. But there’s so many books out there, you might ask, how do you know where to start? Well, you’ve arrived at the right place.
Here are five books, all recommended by UP English professors with the specific purpose to keep your mind endlessly entertained while we wait for this pandemic to be a thing of the past. These books tackle themes more relevant during COVID-19 than ever before: plagues, death, isolation, loss, but most importantly, finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
1. “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders
Recommended by: Dr. Joshua Swidzinski
Publication date: February 2017
Synopsis: This experimental historical fiction novel is set in 1862 and is based on the death of William Wallace Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, at the age of 11. However, this is no regular historical fiction novel: the story takes place after William’s death and the bulk of the plot is spent recording his time in the purgatory stage. While in the afterlife, William meets spirits and a wide range of voices, both fictional and nonfictional, who speak to a variety of topics, primarily the importance of death and loving those who are around us while they are around.
What Dr. Swidzinski had to say about it: “It’s a novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son during the Civil War, but that description doesn’t do it justice at all. It’s a weird, magical, deeply moving, often funny story about grief, lives cut short, and a country tearing itself apart (i.e. everything we’re going through right now). It’s often pointed out that we can’t wrap our minds around the death toll of the pandemic—that the number is too large, too abstract. But Saunders, who tells the story through hundreds of ghostly voices, gives the abstraction of loss a human shape and meaning.”
2. “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo
Recommended by: Dr. Molly Hiro
Publication date: May 2019
Synopsis: “Girl, Woman, Other” is the story of 12 different Black women all living in the UK, told through four individual chapters each detailing the lives of a trio. Most of the women are related or have a relationship with each other, but each of their stories is unique and powerful, with wide variety in age, gender and sexuality, and much more. The book tackles complex issues, including racial tensions and LGBTQ dynamics, but told through a lens which draws the reader in from start to finish.
What Dr. Hiro had to say about it: “‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo (winner of the 2019 Booker Prize) is a novel that more than fulfills Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's call to move beyond any "single story" of what Blackness signifies. Evaristo's novel tells the interconnected stories of a dozen Black British women in sparkling poetry-prose that's poignant and at times funny. I'd highly recommend this multigenerational narrative not only because it confronts issues of race, gender, and sexuality, but also because the women's stories are gripping, sweet, and real.”
3. “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
Recommended by: Dr. Sarah Weiger
Publication date: July 2014
Synopsis: This memoir details the author’s journey of raising a Goshawk bird after her father passed away. Macdonald is able to process her grief by training the bird and bonding with the animal in a way that forms a stronger relationship than many human ones. A story of loss and natural emotions, “H is for Hawk” gives the reader a deep dive into the intimate process of grief and gives us Macdonald’s take on what really matters in life and how we can find that out for ourselves.
What Dr. Weiger had to say about it: “It's my go-to recommendation and I think it's also right for this moment: it's on loss, isolation, and inter-species intimacy. It's also splendidly written and a genre-buster in the memoir category.”
4. “The Plague” by Albert Camus
Recommended by: Dr. John Orr
Publication date: June 1947
Synopsis: This dark tale is the only book on this list not published in this century, but might be the most relevant for readers today. Camus depicts the onset and spread of the Bubonic Plague in the port city of Oran, Algeria around 1940 through the lens of a doctor, and uses several characters to illustrate the dramatic events of the era, from the initial lockdown to the city reopening. Along the way, readers get deep insights on existential crises and what it really means to be locked down and unable to control the absurdism of the world.
What Dr. Orr had to say about it: “Rather than read something uplifting and escapist, I wanted to wallow in the misery of the pandemic. Thus, I read Camus’s ‘The Plague’. Set in a town in Algeria where bubonic plague breaks out, it follows a doctor trying to deal with it during quarantine. At times it’s eerie how accurately he captures the fear and malaise of lockdown.”
5. “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai
Recommended by: Dr. Cara Hersh
Publication date: June 2018
Synopsis: This finalist for the Pulitzer Prize deals with two storylines: a group of gay men in 1980s Chicago living their lives while the AIDS epidemic first begins to become a crisis, and also a woman in 2015 France trying to find her daughter. The plot deals with many topics, including LGBTQ history, the AIDS epidemic, and the personal and far-reaching impacts that large scale events have on each and every one of us.
What Dr. Hersh had to say about it: “I actually read this book right before COVID started but it has stuck with me as it is about one of our country’s last pandemics—the AIDS crisis. I loved the book because it had a really compelling plot, as it transitions back and forth between Chicago in the 1980s and France in 2015, and awesome characters as it ruminates on friendship and relationships. It also had really thoughtful things to say about the difference between living through an experience like this in the present and its historical legacy. It made me think about how we are grappling with COVID viscerally in the moment and day-to-day, but that we are also experiencing something of historical proportions.”
So, there you have it, five books that tackle topics ranging from racial tensions and LGBTQ rights to death and the personal impact of social movements and events. Each of these books are more relevant than ever in these strange, unprecedented times. If there’s anything we can learn from them, it’s that stories draw people together — it’s these same stories that are going to get us through a pandemic and into the future, wherever it may take us.
Carlos Fuentes is the copy editor of The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.