A couple of weeks ago, we shared some of the best books we've been reading during the pandemic, but it was more of a cage match than a book club meeting. When it comes to our reading appetites, our team is divided into two camps — Team #EscapistReads and Team #PandemicReads — and neither side will budge.
So, to help us break our deadlock, we put the question to you, our listeners: What have you been reading during the pandemic? And boy, did y'all respond. We've got enough book recommendations to last us the rest of our days during lockdown (well, hopefully).
It turns out a lot of you also are looking for books that transport you out of our grim reality, such as senior correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. But there's also a good chunk of you turning to books that lean into that darkness and dread, such as editor Leah Donnella. And, as host-referee Shereen Marisol Meraji pointed out, a lot of y'all said that the best books you've read have a little bit of both.
Perhaps this list can be a balm for what ails you — whether that's pre-election dread, faltering economy anxiety or pandemic malaise. Books can't fix everything, but they're at least a good distraction.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Reading has honestly been my biggest comfort during this pandemic. I've found myself picking up a lot of memoirs as a way to live vicariously through the authors. A few of my favorites were Obviously by Akilah Hughes and West Wingers edited by Gautam Raghavan. I also loved The Poppy War series by R.F Kuang, which is a dark fantasy; the third book is coming out in a few months." -- Grace Pierce
"I'm an academic librarian, and for the previous 20 years I was primarily a nonfiction reader, including books for reviews in library journals. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I began to read more fiction, primarily dystopian novels. I joke with colleagues and friends that reading dystopian fiction has helped me feel less pessimistic about contemporary times.
"My first fiction read during the pandemic period was The Road by Cormac McCarthy; next was City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun, followed by The Running Man by Richard Bachman. From there, horror and thrillers by Max Brooks, Stephen King (I'm currently reading 11/22/63) and Cormac McCarthy. Recently, I felt the need to return to more optimistic reads; after a number of years, I'm rereading Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: a Space Odyssey. (I wouldn't necessarily describe the film of the same name as optimistic.)" -- Kyle Winward
"I'm team escapism, though I appreciate the 'both, and' approach because I do think there are real-world themes in my fiction choices, and some idealistic/romantic themes to my nonfiction choices. This year, I've been leaning more toward fiction, particularly young adult. Not ashamed! A few of the top YA I've read this year: Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen; The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson; Clap When You Land, The Poet X and With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo." -- Pamela Lee
"I've been listening to a lot of Jane Austen novels through Audible. Every time I try to read anything situationally relevant, I become unmotivated to read." -- Praveena Javvadi
"I just finished reading Joanne Harris' trilogy: Chocolat, The Girl With No Shadow and Peaches for Monsieur Curé. Warning: You may find yourself suddenly baking and eating delicious, from-scratch chocolate things." -- Lois von der Goltz
"I am an almost exclusive romance reader. I love the genre so very much. I have found that, in these trying, trash-ass times, I've found joy in fantasy romance where I am able to lose myself in reading about witches and dragons and shifters. Some recent ones that I would suggest: Phoenix Unbound and Dragon Unleashed by Grace Draven and The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson." -- Brandan Herbert
"Sometimes the best laid escapism plan doesn't work out. This spring, I deliberately picked up the book The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen because, although it dealt with 'the end of nature,' it seemed mostly a meditation on the intersection of the natural world, poetry, history, philosophy, and science, and the human spirit.
"It seemed the perfect cozy escape, written by a ... Central Park birder. As I was well into the book in May, real-world events overtook the world of the book with Amy Cooper's racist confrontation of birder Christian Cooper in Central Park and the reckoning over the Teddy Roosevelt statue that stood outside the Museum of Natural History there. So much for my escape!" — Greg Bish
"Even before the pandemic, I've always been into the creepy, spooky, eerie, gory, and all of the above — I'm sure it will remain a favorite genre even as COVID persists. Two reads that stand out: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones and Tender Is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica." -- Madeline Hanes
"I just finished Severance by Ling Ma. Reading a book published in 2018 about an airborne virus that travels across the ocean seems a bit surreal right now. But while the novel can be read as a horror novel, it's so much more than that. And that 'so much more' is perhaps even more resonant than the virus itself, if that's possible." -- Clara Boza
"I just finished Parable of the Sower (my first Octavia Butler) this week. I finished it late at night and immediately emailed all the English-language bookshops [in Berlin, where I live now] to see who had a copy of the sequel, which is something I almost never do. It's that good.
"One hopeful read that surprised me this quarantine was In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, which was about the American ambassador to Germany's experiences in Berlin in the 1930s. It was so stark and terrifying to read about but somehow was comforting to me that humanity overcame those ruthlessly dark times." -- Ami Bogin
"I'm currently reading cozy mysteries, Afrofuturism and nonfiction about racism, feminism and politics. I'm also reading self-health books about dealing with anxiety and ADHD." -- Lara Frater
"I'm on Team Read All the Books and have been devouring anything I can get my hands on since I was sent to work from home in March. This includes nonfiction reads that really challenge me (like Danielle Allen's Our Declaration) and all kinds of fiction. (I couldn't put Catherine House down!) But last week I sat down with Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone and devoured it in one sitting. It might be the most perfect thing I've ever read. I think it's ruined every other book for me for the rest of my life. It is gorgeous through and through." -- Elizabeth Richards
"The past couple of weeks I've been trying to wean myself off of consuming so much social media, by reading more books! I'm the kind of person that likes to have a few bookmarks in a variety of books at one time — and one such book is Nepantla: An Anthology, Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto. It's perfect for when I find myself in between tasks or errands, when I'm especially prone to picking up my phone for a mindless scroll, And instead read a couple of poems here and there by queer people of color such as myself." -- Eli Torres
"I'm team 'anything that can get me out of my head.' I really think Code Switch listeners would like Dread Nation and Deathless Divide, both by Justina Ireland. They are books set in an alternative historical reality where the dead rose on the battlefields in the Civil War. The protagonists are both young Black women. As the series opens, they are both in training to be "attendants" — personal servants and zombie slayers — who will serve wealthy white women. It's got a mad scientist, reluctant female friendship and some seriously badass heroines ... and definitely some resonances with the world we live in!
On the romance side, I'm currently reading The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan. I love how Milan's recent historical romances set in England have featured a diverse cast of characters. This one is a romance between a half-Chinese duke and a young working-class woman whose parents left China to labor as indentured servants in the Caribbean and later came to England. The beginning is great, and as a history teacher I'm dying to flip to the historical note at the end!
As an aside, I'm also currently listening to the audio version of Karen Grigsby Bates' Plain Brown Wrapper. I'm really enjoying it so far!" -- Christina Heisser
"When the pandemic hit, and libraries and used bookstores closed, I was at a loss. I don't have an e-reader, and I didn't want to spend money on new books that would just end up on my shelf to be Marie Kondo-d someday (also, #sustainability). Enter the Little Free Library. These community posts, usually filled with self-help books no one wanted to read, were suddenly bursting at the seams, with new books rotating in and out every week. I would ride my bike around town to all the ones I knew about and rummage them for my next read. I've read everything from Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, to Big Little Lies, to a memoir from the 'Ask a Mortician' YouTuber, and now I'm reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I can't say I would've necessarily chosen to rent any of these at the library, but I'm so glad I picked them up. To me, quarantine reading is about rolling with the punches, doing what you can, finding the silver lining." -- Taylor Thornberg
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