reading lists

23 Authors on 26 Books They’re Reading to Escape the Present Moment

Photo: Courtesy of the retailers

In our ongoing effort to provide productive distractions from what’s happening outside of your windows and on your screen right now, we turned to 23 authors, from Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of the Arts winners to rising literary stars, to ask them about the books they themselves are turning to for an escape from the present moment. Below — in their own words — are their choices, which range from 20th-century classics to riotous new memoirs and modern epics. As author Erin Khar told us, “Books are a great source of comfort during life’s challenging moments. And we are in one of those difficult moments now.”

Editor’s note: All of these authors have either recently published new books or about to publish new books. But due to the restrictions on gatherings and crowd sizes amid the coronavirus pandemic, they have been forced to postpone tours and events to promote them. So in addition to each author’s recommendation, we’ve noted their new titles as well.

“When I first read Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples, I was a teenager in mid-1950s North Carolina. The linked stories about the inhabitants of a small town in Mississippi made me feel right at home; I recognized these people, and none of them surprised me. Rereading the book now, though, I’m struck by their great distance from everything that preoccupies me in 2020. They still make me smile, but their innocence breaks my heart. Why I should find this a comfort, I can’t explain, but I thank them for it.” —Anne Tyler, author of Redhead by the Side of the Road

“I have A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway on my bedside table. Moveable is an adjective with some particular appeal under the present circumstances, with everything coming to a standstill. As a writer in California, I like reading this memoir of an American writer in Paris, imagining him moving so freely with his pen — despite his lack of funds — into cafés and bars and restaurants, friends’ apartments, hotels, around Europe and through life. I bought a new edition of this book to read in advance of a book tour which included a stop in Paris, a trip that has now been canceled due to the pandemic. So reading it now is kind of a replacement experience.” —Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Death in Her Hands

“In times that feel disastrous and huge, I like to read about things that are small and beautiful. In this slim book, McPhee describes the botany and history of oranges, from lovers in ancient Italy who washed themselves in orange-flower water, to present street vendors in Trinidad and Tobago who sell glistening orange halves sprinkled with salt. Each of the book’s precise, reverent chapters feels like a meditation.” —Elisabeth Thomas, author of Catherine House

“While holed up at home, I’ve been rereading this book. It’s about the art of loneliness, and loneliness itself, and a meditation on a group of artists — like David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, and Edward Hopper — who made loneliness their subject. Amazingly, Laing’s book is not only thoughtful and entertaining, but makes solitude seem like a state of heightened receptivity and grace.” —Alex Halberstadt, author of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

“I’m escaping with Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, a novel that reads like a fable, about a young Italian nobleman (nobleboy?) named Cosimo who gets so miffed at his parents one night when he doesn’t like what’s for dinner (snail soup), that he defiantly climbs into the trees and vows to live in the canopy for the rest of his life. The story stretches on for years; it’s magical, comical, weird. I’ve been reading it to my daughter before bed since sometime last fall — very intermittently, very sluggishly — but we’re picking up steam now.” —Jon Mooallem, author of This Is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together

Not exactly comfort reading, at least by the traditional definition. But I can think of few other narratives that can keep me paying attention at a time when my attention is so completely divided. It’s Roth’s prose, of course — so loud, so alive, so filled with rage and passion and rueful reverie — that sucks me in. But the story, too, and the way he tells that story — of a family’s destruction, of complacency and confidence giving way to anguish and rage — reminds me that yes, there really have been moments like this before, and that yes, suffering really is universal, and that yes, we are more together than we think, even at our worst. So this book is not exactly escapism, but the way Roth tells the story is an excellent pressure valve for everything I’m feeling right now, and that maybe you’re feeling, too.” —Robert Kolker, author of Hidden Valley Road

“There’s a part of me that wants escapism, maximalist plot, and a brick of a book — something that’ll keep one busy for a while. In that vein, I love The Goldfinch — a brainy heist novel that it includes the Metropolitan Museum and international travel (two things New Yorkers will be missing for a while).” —Emily Nemens, editor of the Paris Review and author of The Cactus League

“Brad Watson’s Miss Jane is one of the quieter, more beautiful books I’ve read in years — if we ever had a chance to slow down and enjoy a well-wrought sentence, now would be it. Set in rural Mississippi, it’s a story of an isolated woman who makes meaning and finds beauty in her circumscribed world.” —Nemens

“For years as a high school teacher, I taught Pride and Prejudice, but in recent weeks I’ve turned to Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel. It’s a perfect book, the savagery of Austen’s utterly ruthless social critique always sweetened by the goodness of Anne Elliot, the novel’s protagonist. I love Austen’s sentences on the page; Juliet Stevenson’s narration, for audiobook lovers, brilliantly captures their poise and quicksilver tones.” —Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness 

“Yiyun Li should be on any short list of the greatest writers in English right now, and I keep this book of essays permanently within arm’s reach. Struggling with her mental health, in a period of multiple hospitalizations, Li turns to the writers she loves, many of them — Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern — slightly out of the way for most American readers. Which means that the book, in addition to being gorgeous in itself, also points to enough other reading to get us all through the next months.” —Greenwell

“During this time of great uncertainty (and also, at least in my case, great cooking and cleaning) I recommend this book. It’s billed as a memoir with recipes, but Grant’s point of view is uniquely sensual and grounding. Think James Salter meets Ruth Reichel meets Marguerite Duras. Phyllis Grant was a promising ballerina who began her freshman year at Julliard in the 1990s. Lucky for us, she took a detour and discovered cooking with an intensity that rivals Anthony Bourdain. She writes with grace and passion not only about cooking but feasting, family, falling in love and falling apart. She also writes extremely well about healing. When I finished this book, I felt more alive. I can’t think of a better reason to read, in this strange moment and always.” —Joanna Hershon, author of St. Ivo

“These days, quarantined and apprehensive, I am thinking about rereading this slender novel about two elderly neighbors, widow and widower, who agree to spend their nights together, not out of lust but rather loneliness. Side by side in the dark, they tell their lives to each other in ways that evoke comfort, solace, and self-forgiveness. I think all of us, right now, are seeking those things. Snuggling up with this book would be a starting point.” —Lois Lowry, author of On the Horizon

“The last book I ran over to the college to get before the library closed its doors was Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the 1350s, a collection of tales by a group of 10 young people (seven women and three men) who flee Florence in 1348 for the countryside because the plague, known as the Black Death, has struck the city. Each day for ten days, these ten young people tell a tale, a hundred in all, to keep their spirits up and entertain each other. Unlike Boccaccio’s group, my husband and I don’t have nine other living storytellers in our house to pass the time with as we shelter in place, but we have Boccaccio to accompany us. It gives me great solace to know that others have gone through a similar experience and come out singing!” —Julia Alvarez, author of Afterlife

“I have an ‘RIP Bunny Corcoran’ stick-and-poke tattoo on my back, so you know my love for this book is real. I was a sophomore in high school when it came out, and I found the story of a group of classics majors in over their heads at a New England college the perfect thing to distract me from my life then. I still reread it every year (I have also made every boyfriend I’ve had read it). Even though it’s about murder, it’s super cozy with all the references to lamb chops and country houses and Greek tragedies. Engrossing! Beautiful! Transporting!” —Marisa Meltzer, author of This Is Big

“This book about an English couple that moves to Provence is told in these little vignettes about life in the South of France that are completely charming and low stakes. Probably the most stressful part of the book is when they spend a chapter trying to get a massive stone table moved into the courtyard of their 200-year-old home. It was written pre-internet and features a lot of glugging of wine with eccentric neighbors and talking about weather. I can’t think of anything more soothing right now.” —Meltzer

“For me, it’s more soothing to read something that feels deeply reported and complete — even if it’s something as bleak as America’s housing crisis. But in Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates, the beat-by-beat developments of California’s decades-long growth of income inequality are presented with sharp detail and an even, measured tone. Like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (also excellent, and a great pairing with this book), Golden Gates makes a broader argument by staying very tight on the story of a series of people, rather than policy.” —Kevin Nguyen, author of New Waves

“The first chapters of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — especially in the original stodgy English translation — offer the perfect combination of precision, elegance, and excruciating boredom. The early plotless pages are the ideal before-sleep pandemic read. Check out this sentence: ‘Without quite knowing why, my grandmother found in the steeple of Saint-Hilaire that absence of vulgarity, pretension, and meanness which made her love — and deem rich in beneficent influences — nature itself, when the hand of man had not, as did my great-aunt’s gardener, trimmed it, and the works of genius.’ So lovely, and so boring!” —Brian Platzer, author of The Body Politic

“In these truly uncertain and bewildering times, poetry has saved the day. (It usually does.) It has brought me endless comfort and secret grottos of hope. I am once again a child with a book and a flashlight under a blanket, and night after night, I find myself thumbing through the pages of this poetry collection. Fletcher’s book is an open hydrant on a summer day, blasting hope out into traffic. The title poem alone is a four-line stunner: ‘A breeze whistles through the trees / that used to be telephone poles. / My heart is a landslide / I say out loud and nine out of ten landslides agree.’” —Hilary Leichter, author of Temporary

“Whenever things are weird or difficult for me, I turn to the Middle Ages. I know that’s extremely odd — what on earth could be comforting about a landscape plague-ridden, war-ridden, violent and brutish? But I find that there’s a strange sort of space that can be made in the middle of modern chaos when we look to how people before us created order and peace in similarly chaotic times. It’s comforting to me to read their stories. All this is to say that I’m so glad I picked this up when I still could at a local bookstore. It’s a medieval whodunit, taking place in the four holy days leading up to Ash Wednesday. It’s narrated by — who else — the local priest, and it’s riveting, escapist, and utterly comforting.” —Amber Sparks, author of And I Do Not Forgive You

“The book I find myself turning to once again has been in my life for a very long time — since I was 8 years old. I was an early reader and insomniac, and I often snuck down to our den at night, grabbing one of my parents’ books to smuggle back to my room. This is the most beloved of those late-night finds for me. The book chronicles the Berry family and their unusual lives that are full of love and sorrow and everything in between. Irving’s storytelling is just so good and engrossing, which is what I need from a book right now. What stuck with me, what continues to stick with me, was the Berry family refrain: ‘Keep passing the open windows.’ I would come to pass so many open windows. And sometimes I would stick an arm or leg out and come back a little broken, but I’m still here. I survived. And this book always reminds me of that message — that we will get through this.”
—Erin Khar, author of Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me

“In this era of social distancing, the book gets us as close as we can to the after-hours jamming by those maestro jazzmen who orchestrated the chords that throb at the soul of the most all-American music form. Jazz Life reminds us why, before the world had the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll, listening to jazz was like belonging to ‘an elite secret society.’ Hentoff takes us back to the field hollers where jazz was spawned. He offers delicious gems for those who already know why jazz matters, and is just the tour guide for those who want to. He has us smoking weed with Satchmo Armstrong, and feeling the subtlety and ferocity of Count Basie and his band.” —Larry Tye, author of Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy

“Truly the funniest, most thrilling, bonkers and absurd story about realistic sex dolls, a terrifying tech giant looking to control human brains, dolphin sex, and, yes, quarantine. It’s so hilarious and totally destroys me. I’ve read it so many times, and it’s the perfect companion for isolating in your vacuum-sealed panic room with all that one-ply toilet paper everyone’s mad at you for hoarding.” —Samantha Irby, author of Wow, No Thank You

“Right now, in need of comfort and delight at once, I’m turning to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The novel is clever, engaging, and almost folkloric in its power, but I really read for Merricat [the 18-year-old main character] who charms me instantly, every time, with her weirdness, her unabashed singularity. Does it say something bad about me that I find a novel about a girl who poisons her whole family incredibly … cozy? Oh well.” —Emily Temple, author of The Lightness

“My fiction recommendation is the aptly named Days of Distraction. It’s about a young woman who leaves a job at a tech company for a small town in search of herself and the rest of her life. It’s tender and funny and exactly what we need right now.” —Laura Zigman, author of Separation Anxiety

“Any book that I’m reading right now has to take me somewhere far, far away, and be funny. This novel is set during the last gasp of British rule in India, at a remote Victorian outpost where the collapse of the empire seems like a distant and silly rumor … until it doesn’t. How is this funny, you may ask? All I can say is: Read it and find out. Farrell’s novel is smart, insightful, extremely hilarious, and oddly in tune with what’s happening now in a sidelong way that allows you to connect and escape simultaneously. Reading it turned me, a person with zero interest in British anything, into a lifelong fan.” —Myla Goldberg, author of Feast Your Eyes

“Here’s a short story, Franny, and a novella, Zooey, that together form a short novel about family, acting, asceticism, and … 900 other things, including shaving. I’ve read it no fewer than a dozen times. There isn’t a warmer, more generous book. It isn’t an escape so much as a portable, un-knock-downable pillow fort to hide out in quietly, remembering you’re alive and don’t have to escape.” — Adam Levin, author of Bubblegum

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26 Books Authors Are Reading to Escape the Present Moment