reading lists

The Books Our Political Writers Are Reaching for Right Now

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The current issue of New York is all about how to socially isolate during the coronavirus pandemic without sacrificing your sanity. Here, five of our writers share the books that are giving them some perspective during the crisis.

Everyone feels alone in a crisis, at first. This one has made the isolation concrete, and oppressive, with social distancing alienating each of us: those lucky and healthy enough to want to help advised only to keep to themselves, those doing the front-line work providing health care and food and medicine left lonely and exposed, those sick and dying forced to suffer alone. It is an especially modern, and American, coping mechanism: retreating even further into atomized lives and away from each other.

It needn’t be that way. In fact, as the incomparable Rebecca Solnit has shown throughout her long, meandering, brilliant career, but especially in these two books, it must not be. A Paradise Built in Hell is an eye-opening account of how much hope and solidarity emerges in the face of sudden disaster; and Hope in the Dark, written for activists, shows us what can be done, politically, even when progress seems impossible and continuing the fight exhausting. These lessons will matter enormously in the months ahead as the pandemic gives way to the fight about what kind of society will be erected in its aftermath. But they also offer deep comfort now, as antidotes not just to feelings of helplessness but loneliness. — David Wallace-Wells

What are our roles in periods of danger and structural disintegration? Ta-Nehisi Coates’s antebellum fiction The Water Dancer has nothing to do with literal illness or plague, but it’s the book I can’t stop thinking about now. The story begins as a violent economy is crumbling under the weight of its own unsustainability. It offers a remarkable view of how power and dependence work: how economies are built in such a way as to render those abused within them (and on whose backs they are made) reliant on that system of abuse for their continued stability. It is a useful way to think about what happens when intolerable, but seemingly permanent, systems collapse; now, of course, I am thinking about how swiftly systems can be decimated by illness. — Rebecca Traister

There is nothing quite so terrifying as plunging into an economic catastrophe under a president who is devoid of basic administrative competence and human empathy. But William Leuchtenburg’s concise history Herbert Hoover serves as a good reminder that those two traits, while necessary, are insufficient.

Hoover’s résumé was almost eerily suited to the task. During World War I, he brilliantly led a relief effort to feed starving civilians in war-torn Europe. After the U.S. entered the war, he commanded a national food-conservation campaign that was so successful it gave rise to an eponymous term: Hooverize, to economize in the national interest. After the war, he was sent back to Europe, designing from scratch a campaign to feed children, with equal success. His name spawned another word: In Finnish, hoover meant “to help.”

But when the Depression hit, Hoover toggled between denial and fatalism. There was “minimum actual suffering,” he said in December 1930 with the country already gripped by deprivation. He insisted that “our people have been protected from hunger and cold” while millions shivered and starved. Eventually, he spawned yet more eponymous terms, like “Hoover flags,” for the linings of empty pockets turned inside out, and “Hoovervilles,” for collections of shanties housing the homeless. — Jonathan Chait

Between 1979 and 1981, at least 22 children — almost all of them black boys — and six adults were murdered in Atlanta in what authorities came to believe were related crimes. James Baldwin, who traveled to the city on assignment for Playboy magazine, is less preoccupied with the case’s procedural elements than how it affected the city’s mood. On its face, this 125-page exploration of the Atlanta Child Murders case has few clear parallels with today’s crisis. But the fundamental terror and uncertainty of the moment will be more than a little familiar. Today’s readers will see curfews imposed and frightened parents removing their children from schools en masse; vulnerable people left to the wolves as elected leaders are fatally slow to recognize the severity of what’s unfolding; widespread scapegoating and proffering of conspiracy theories. — Zak Cheney-Rice

In the movies, humanity unites to stop the end of the world. Real life can be less inspiring. Politicians can’t agree on solutions, people are hoarding supplies, and New York City is building makeshift emergency morgues. But for philosopher Martin Hägglund, realizing our mortality doesn’t have to be depressing — it can also be inspiring, conferring a political responsibility on the living. “Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever and that we need to take care of one another because our lives are fragile,” he writes. If we only get one chance to exist, we should learn to exist well. Hägglund believes that pursuit is incompatible with capitalism, which alienates us from each other and dehumanizes us. Instead, democratic socialism charts the path forward. By reorienting life around the pursuit of human flourishing instead of profit, socialism promises a more bearable existence, and not just for us. The way we respond, or don’t, to the coronavirus won’t determine our eternal fates. But it will shape the world that we leave to our children. — Sarah Jones

*This article appears in the March 30, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Books Our Political Writers Are Reaching for Right Now