I see a lot of news articles lately that feature lists of books we could be reading right now. Many feature dystopian novels, heavy classics and slogs through history. Some are books you think you should have read by now or those that will remind you of your worst fears. The Plague. War and Peace. Steven King. Cormac McCarthy. Thucydides.
I don’t want to read that stuff right now, and, for many of us, it’s hard to read anything. People talk about feeling too distracted by worries and the barrage of news. We are slowed down by over-eating, the world’s lowered expectations of us, and an unfamiliar kindness toward ourselves.
But some books are good in these circumstances. They let us be distracted and anxious. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites. Each is delightful, well-written, and intelligent. Some even have lots of pictures! I’ve included a review of each in case you want to know more before committing.
1. The Principles of Uncertainty — Maira Kalman.
Most of Kalman’s books are for children. This one is for adults who are a little childlike. It reminds us of life’s absurdities, magical little corners of the world, and the quirks of human nature. The illustrations are playful and artful. You don’t even have to read it in order. https://www.startribune.com/hats-off-to-maira-kalman/12486111/
2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? — Roz Chast
My dear friend, Steve Weissman, and I have shared a peculiar fascination with New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast, for a really long time. Her work usually portrays the most unassuming types of humans awkwardly coping with the most prosaic facts of life. A few years ago, she published a graphic memoir about her aging parents that is poignant and side-splitting funny. You can’t put it down. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/books/review/roz-chasts-cant-we-talk-about-something-more-pleasant.html
3. Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut is like quantum mechanics: too many layers to understand but addictive. I almost didn’t include this one because it is a story about the end of the world. But Vonnegut never gives you an opportunity to feel scared or hopeless. It is cathartic and hilarious and puts the big questions in context. I plan to read it again. https://georgetownvoice.com/2016/11/28/lessons-from-literature-cats-cradle/
4. An Everlasting Meal — Tamara Adler
Written by a former chef at Chez Panisse, this book about the philosophy of cooking and food emphasizes the wonders of simple, soulful meals, and a reliance on intuition ahead of precision. It’s beautifully written and almost as intimate as a letter from your best friend. After every chapter, I wanted to drop an egg in a stew and celebrate celery. http://hereelsewhere.com/see/an-everlasting-meal/
5. Hyperbole and A Half — Allie Brosh.
This quirky graphic memoir is about confusion and depression, but you don’t need to be confused or depressed to love it. You could just be a person with a sense of humor and some curiosity about coping skills and dogs. Here’s the “Fresh Air” interview of the author. https://www.npr.org/2013/11/12/244758140/even-when-it-hurts-alot-brosh-faces-life-with-plenty-of-hyperbole
6. Good Lord Bird — James McBride.
This award-winning novel is one of my favorite novels ever. It tells the story of a freed slave who wanders the world as a girl during the time of the white abolitionist, John Brown. If the premise sounds heavy, the book is not. It’s a scream and a smart one at that. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/books/review/james-mcbrides-good-lord-bird.html
7. Encyclopedia of Early Earth — Isabel Greenburg.
I just started this graphic novel. It is a poetic love story with references to creation folklore, and it gets rave reviews. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/02/encyclopedia-early-earth-isabel-greenberg-review
8. The Soul of the Octopus — Sy Montgomery.
This seems like a great time to read books about nature, although I personally get bored by long passages describing the landscape. Montgomery’s story about octopuses is never boring. It is a tender and scientific portrait of a species that is intelligent and playful, and seems to have a thing for humans. You will never eat calamari again. https://www.laaudubon.org/blog/2019/11/12/book-review-the-soul-of-an-octopus-a-surprising-exploration-into-the-wonder-of-consciousness
9. Ways of Seeing — John Berger.
Berger is a lefty art critic who brought social values to the world of art criticism. This book is for regular people and it changed the way I interpret art. It’s short and easy to read with lots of pictures. https://theconversation.com/how-john-berger-changed-our-way-of-seeing-art-70831
10. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse — Charlie Mackesy.
This sweet book is quickly becoming a classic. It’s more of a long greeting card than a book — a wonderful meditation on what is best about life with dozens of delightful illustrations. It’s perfect to read with kids. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/books/looking-for-a-book-to-read-with-your-family.html
Happy reading and please share your favorites!