There's a ton of advice out there at the moment on how to cope with coronavirus, including everything from remote work guides to advice from former special ops soldiers on how to pack a "go bag." A lot of these tips are valuable, but I have to say my personal favorite is a recent post from consistently awesome book recommendation site Five Books.
While the time may come when you need to learn how to jerry-rig your own hand sanitizer, at the moment the biggest hassle many folks are facing is passing the time while they're stuck at home trying to keep themselves and their communities well. Five Books asked Columbia University English professor Jenny Davidson for book suggestions to while away the hours.
Her picks are a feast of outbreak-related titles that will remind you of our shared humanity, distract you for days, and get you thinking about how diseases impact society. The entire in-depth interview is well worth a read, but here are Davidson's basic recommendations:
1. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
In terms of epidemics, coronavirus is really not humanity's first rodeo. When the Black Death hit Europe in the 14th century, for instance, it killed something like half the population. Half. No possible scenario for the current outbreak is anything close to that dire, but there are parallels nonetheless.
Just like now, people then went into isolation and got bored. "The premise of the book is that a group of young noblemen and -women, people of great privilege who have been able to flee the plague-ridden city, are telling each other stories to while away their time together in the luxurious villa to which they've retreated," explains Davidson. By imaginatively connecting you with these shut-ins of the past, The Decameron might ease your isolation as well as your boredom.
"The description of the plague in the frame narrative is very vivid and quite horrifying," she warns. "But the stories that the characters tell each other are bawdy and humorous." The book captures the feeling of suspended animation and disrupted normality that happens in an outbreak.
2. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
A historical novel by the author of Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year is the imagined diary of someone living through a 17th-century outbreak of plague in London.
"One of the most striking aspects of the book is that its storytelling mechanism incorporates early versions of the same kind of epidemiological data that we are paying attention to during the coronavirus outbreak," notes Davidson. "Bills of Mortality were the 17th-century reporting method by which individual neighborhoods in London tallied up each week's deaths and assigned them causes. Defoe incorporates those data to convey the arc of a disease on the rise."
3. The Plague by Albert Camus
One last plague book for you, and then I promise Davidson moves on to lighter, if no less topical, fare. The Plague was written just after World War II when the world was all too familiar with fear and disruption. It's a classic for a reason.
"This book is very vivid in conveying what it feels like to be in a city hit by an epidemic and what it feels like to be in quarantine. It also conveys how important it is to retain our humanity and our sense of connection to others in times when so much is at stake," Davidson explains.
4. Feed by Mira Grant
More of a page-turner than a way to connect with your historical fellow travelers, this book is part of a sci-fi series about a near-term future where a manmade virus causes a zombie apocalypse.
"When the first book came out, I devoured it," raves Davidson, who notes the book isn't just a more literary version of The Walking Dead: "The two main characters, a brother and sister, are part of a news team in a world in which people are very, very hesitant to come into contact. They're reporting on a presidential campaign in which there is corruption and manipulation at the highest level, not least concerning the virus."
5. Severance by Ling Ma
Davidson calls Severance "a brilliant book" and notes it's "the one on this list that I most strongly recommend to people trying to take their mind off the news." Not that it's completely unrelated to our current reality.
The book follows a pair of Millennial office workers who just keep going to work after an apocalyptic plague sweeps New York City. "It is about the intersection of immigration and global capitalism in modern cities and the breakdown of human communication and meaningful human contacts that occur as a consequence," she says.
What's on your "to read if I end up going into quarantine" list?