What We’re Reading During the Pandemic (Year Two)

We asked the department what novels, poems, quotes, texts they have found particularly resonant and sustaining during the pandemic. Here are their responses:

forche coverBest book of the pandemic: Carolyn Forché's What You Have Heard Is True.

—Pam Houston

I very much enjoyed Robert MacFarlane's Underland: A Deep Time Journey

—Liz Millerunderland cover

"Live or die, but don't poison everything." –Anne Sexton or Saul Bellow, depending on whom you ask.

—Beth Freeman

The Alice B Toklas Cook Book. Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya.

—Lucy Corin

station 11 cover"Blinding Lights," the Weeknd (the city's cold and empty / no one's around to judge me / I can't see clearly when you're gone)

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Intimations, Zadie Smith

–Claire Waters

The epigraph to my next collection comes from one of Thoreau's essays, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," which was precisely that, a lecture given while Brown, the American abolitionist I suppose some might also call a terrorist, was still alive. I have been thinking about Thoreau, Brown, and other American "dissenters" in this time of social disrepair, and though the essay came to my attention after the election of 2016, it only proved more relevant during the pandemic, though I would not say I agree with these words as much as I find them provocative, resonant, and full of this moment's particular energy:

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors. They are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands. Our crowded society becomes well spaced all at once, clean and handsome to the eye,--a city of magnificent distances. We discover why it was that we never got beyond compliments and surfaces with them before; we become aware of as many versts between us and them as there are between a wandering Tartar and a Chinese town. The thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the thoroughfares of the market-place. Impassable seas suddenly find their level between us, or dumb steppes stretch themselves out there. It is the difference of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not streams and mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries between individuals and between states.


—Katie Peterson

adichie cover half of a yellow sunA recent novel I've enjoyed is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Also just enjoyed reading Dayton Duncan's "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," a reminder that there are plenty of great travel opportunities close to home.

—Gina Bloom

Colm Toibin's The Master, Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends and Normal People, anything by Georges Simenon, Ivor Gurney's poem "The Not-Returning."

—Karl Zender

Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability edited by Sheila Black, Michael Northen, and Jennifer Bartlett. I've also used the pandemic as an opportunity to reread many of the books on my shelves, including Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

—Augusta Funk

parable of the sowerFor the "resonant" category, perhaps this one—Elizabeth Bowen, in a letter to Virginia Woolf in the wake of the London Blitz: “All my life I have said, 'Whatever happens there will always be tables and chairs' – and what a mistake.”

In the category of sustenance, I have broken my long fiction drought and made a little progress on the dusty, aspirational urgently-to-be-read pile next to my sofa. The latest was Parable of the Sower. I made it all the way through without feeling guilty and setting it aside in favor of work reading or doom-infused geopolitical diagnoses and postmortems. I've just cracked open Austerlitz; wish me luck.

–Jessica Gray

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

—Kristen Hanley Cardozo

Montage of a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes

—Clara Jimenez

vampires in the lemon groveShort stories from Karen Russell’s collections Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Orange World.

—Faith Merino Riley

Love Medicine, Louise Erdrichlove medicine

Via Negativa, Dan Hornsby

Somebody Else Sold the World, Adrian Matejka

—Michael Mlekoday

Louise Erdrich's (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) The Round House and Love Medicine. Linda Hogan's (Choctaw Nation) Solar Storm. Joy Harjo's (Muscogee [Creek] Nation) "Emergence" in Map to the Next World.

—Jonathan Radocay

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

—Ashley Sarpong

ministry for the futureMinistry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Exhalation, Ted Chiang 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami

–Kristin George Bagdanov