As the first month of major disruption in America in response to COVID-19 bleeds into April, experts don’t yet know when social life will return to something like normal. It could be anywhere from two months to two years.
The situation changes every day, and many people are searching for meaning in self-isolation. We’ve compiled a list of seven books that explore and respond to what life feels like during a pandemic: the disorientation, the doom and gloom, the surprising moments of positivity and the sense that we’re all in this together even if each person has a very different experience.
Ordered from pessimistic to reassuring, these books are short enough to keep your anxiety-drained attention in between Zoom classes or during the kids’ nap time.
The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe
Or at least some of them. Poe lived through a cholera pandemic and lost multiple family members to tuberculosis, which may have inspired his writing. Many of his stories are infused with a sense of disorder and suffocating isolation. The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death both place stories about social deterioration in the secluded homes of the rich, and The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum both put the reader inside the perspective of a narrator who is truly going through it.
'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson
Four people voluntarily isolate themselves in a secluded estate called Hill House to study paranormal events. They all experience strange happenings, but Eleanor must confront underlying problems in the life she lived before, exacerbated by her new friends and a house that seems to be pushing her toward madness.
'The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror' by Daniel M. Lavery
Consider this an alternative to Poe or Jackson by a living author. You know Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast — but the whole world is upside down right now, and these aren’t those stories. Many of the stories explore the heightened effects of shared isolation, and The Rabbit retells The Velveteen Rabbit by replacing scarlet fever with a preternatural soul-sickness.
'Jazz' by Toni Morrison
This novel traces the history and interactions of various characters from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. Like the improvisational nature of the music genre the book is named after, these unreliable narrators are making up life as they go along, responding to crisis and opportunity as it comes. In this world, the facts of an incident take a backseat to the perspectives and feelings of the people who experience it.
'The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents' by Terry Pratchett
The first YA entry in the Discworld fantasy series, this book introduces a group of small-scale grifters to a town plagued by rats—or is it? It’s a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper, but it’s also about the struggle for power and unity in a small town and among the interlopers, a group of hyper-intelligent rats.
'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott
Alcott’s classic novel — inspired by her own life, which, like Poe’s, was shaped by disease and war — is well-known as a book about the importance of family and appreciating what you have. It also carefully considers different ways that personal and societal upheaval demands compromise in different ways for different people. Plus, if you need to fill even more time, you can watch the many film adaptions and decide whether Katherine Hepburn, Winona Ryder or Saoirse Ronan makes the best Jo.
'The Library Book' by Susan Orlean
True crime-adjacent, this is the story of the fire that gutted the Los Angeles Public Library and the ways that the city came together to save what was left. If stories of human kindness and solidarity make you cry, this book will dehydrate you.