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Reading during a pandemic: a top 20 book list +Bonus

ever in modern history has that sentiment felt more true than now, as people across the globe sequester themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In celebration of the power of books, PEOPLE editors and writers share the books that they’re reading while staying at home. From memoir and apocalyptic satire to award-winning literary fiction, these books can provide readers a way to escape and feel less isolated.

  • ‘The Plague’
    By Albert Camus

“The Plague” is one of the most well-known books on the topic of epidemic disease — and right now, it’s on the reading lists of many professors.

Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Harvard Gazette that although he hasn’t had time to start the 1947 novel yet, he’s read it before. ”[Albert] Camus has influenced my thinking ever since my best friend introduced me to his work,” he said.

“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,” Jenny Davidson, a professor at Columbia University said in an interview with book recommendations site FiveBooks.com. “It conveys how important it is to retain our humanity and our sense of connection to others in times when so much is at stake.”

  • ‘The Stoic Challenge’
    By William B. Irvine

Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, puts “The Stoic Challenge” high up on her Covid-19 reading list. “It’s the perfect call to arms for a tough time like we’re experiencing, but it gives you hope that a stoic outlook on life can help,” she told Yale News.

Author and philosopher William B. Irvine uses centuries-old wisdom to teach us how to turn unexpected setbacks into opportunities for a tougher, calmer and more resilient life.

“The main thesis is that we can view bad things in our life as a challenge to overcome, rather than a crisis to be endured,” Santos said.

  • ‘A Jewish Refugee in New York’
    By Kadya Molodovsky (translated by Anita Norich)

Originally published in Yiddish in 1941 (but recently translated), “A Jewish Refuge in New York” is about a 20-year-old Jewish woman who arrives in New York shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland, her home country — and must cope with a different way of life in the U.S.

″[The protagonist] is trying to survive and go on, but she’s also frequently angry at how little those around her know or apparently care about the situation in Europe,” Katie Trumpener, a professor of comparative literature at Yale, told Yale News.

“Somehow this was very comforting to read in the first strange days of the pandemic,” she added, ”[especially] as the danger moved closer, but was still largely invisible, as some people were loading up their grocery carts in anticipation, while others were still in denial that it could possibly ever affect or touch them.”

  • ‘Untamed’
    By Glennon Doyle

“The braver we are, the luckier we get,” activist and speaker Glennon Doyle writes in her memoir.

“Untamed” is an exploration of the happiness, joy and peace we find when we stop bending over backwards to meet societal expectations. “I am going slowly because I don’t want it to end, I love it so much,” Kathy Delaney-Smith, head coach of Harvard’s women’s basketball team, told The Harvard Gazette.

She plans to make her whole team read “Untamed” once practice is back in session — and recommends it to all women.

“It looks at the whole set of characteristics that are attributed to men and the very different set attributed to women,” said Delaney-Smith, “and makes the point that it’s time for women to understand they are free to be whoever they are, to find their true selves.”

  • ‘The Decameron’
    By Giovanni Boccacio

Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale, recently finished reading “The Decameron.”

“It’s essentially a collection of 100 stories from 14th-century Italy, told by a group of seven women and three men who are sheltering — staying home! — in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death (the epidemic of 1348),” Natarajan explained to Yale News.

The stories are all “wonderful … some comic, some tragic, some absurd, and some magical,” she said. “The original is in vernacular Florentine Italian. I read it in translation, of course.”

The Best Books to Read During The Coronavirus Pandemic, According to PEOPLE Editors

“Books are a uniquely portable magic,” Stephen King explained in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Keep reading for PEOPLE editors’ favorite books.

Wow, No Thank You. ESSAYS By SAMANTHA IRBY

CREDIT: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Wow, No Thank You.: Essays by Samantha Irby

When I’m feeling lonely or can’t sleep at night, Samantha Irby is always there to make me laugh — and think. Her sharp wit and raunchy humor cover everything from the ire of home improvements to falling in love in this collection of personal essays. Wow, No Thank You. is like a long conversation with your brilliant, hilarious best friend — one you won’t want to end. —Morgan Smith, Editorial Assistant 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

There’s something about classics that is comforting during this weird time — but sometimes you want your old go-to with a twist. That’s Eligible, a 2017 modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld. The Bennett family instead resides in Cincinnati, and while Jane and Elizabeth are courted by Darcy and Bingley, they’re now a doctor and a Bachelor-esque reality star, respectively. —Lindsay Kimble, Senior News Editor

Lock Every Door Riley Sager

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

I’m a thriller novel fanatic, and this is one of the best (and spookiest!) that I’ve read in a long time. The eerie page-turner follows Jules Larsen as she stars a new job as an apartment sitter at one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings known for strange disappearances. The story captured my attention from the first page and the suspense built to a sinister and shocking ending. The quick read—I finished it in one sitting!—is perfect if you’re looking for novel filled with a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns.  —Kaitlyn Frey, Assistant Style & Beauty Editor

A Drinking Life Pete Hamill

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill 

Pete Hamill’s best-selling memoir is a coming-of-age story by the eldest son of Irish immigrants in New York City. Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s, this NYC newspaper veteran chronicles the drinking culture and its effect on his relationships in “the neighborhood” as well as his personal and professional life. This is a wonderful read by a native New Yorker about a beloved bygone era. —Julie Farin, Director, Brand Communications/PEOPLE

Normal People Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney 

Sally Rooney’s acclaimed second novel follows two teenagers, from two very different backgrounds, falling in something approximating love, as they continue a delicate but complicated on/off entanglement for years. The characters became real to me, like people I valued and understood, and the book was hard to put down. Rooney draws you so tightly into Connell and Marianne’s relationship bubble that it starts feeling like YOUR bubble, too—and it was one I didn’t want to leave on the last page. —Laura Barcella, Staff Crime Editor

If I Had Your Face: A Novel

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Set in Seoul, South Korea—where birthrates are low and unemployment is high—this powerful debut follows the lives of five women who live in the same office-tel. Together, they navigate sexism and a beauty industry that encourages them to shave their jawlines for a smaller, more perfect face. An enthralling tale about the weight of old traumas, economic disparity and the restoring power of friendship. —Sam Gillette, Writer/Reporter, Books

Before We Were Strangers Renee Carlino

Before We Were Strangers by Renée Carlino

Beginning with a missed connections post on Craigslist, this unique story of lost and found love provides the reader with twists and turns that blossom into a beautiful and heartwarming story. I couldn’t put this book down, and it stayed with me long after I finished. —Hannah Tashkovich, Assistant Photo Editor

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell

Race Against Time by Jerry Mitchell

A chance meeting with a retired FBI agent at the screening of a film that fictionalized the then-unsolved 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi launched the journalist Mitchell on a decades-long run to expose villains that many powerful figures conspired to keep hidden. Vividly reported by a master investigator and storyteller (who now is poking into a mysterious disappearance featured in the Netflix phenom Tiger King), Race Against Time delivers emotion and justice in equal parts. —Jeff Truesdell, Staff Writer

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

This book is the absolute ideal of “breezy but not dopey” that I always hope for in a beach read. That’s why it’s the perfect reading for right now: You don’t need to give it 100% of your brainpower, but it’s so warm, funny and engaging that you’ll want to. The characters are likable, the complications manageable and the love story sweet but not saccharine. Writing this, I’m thinking I may pick it up to read again this week. —Alex Apatoff, People.com Lifestyle Director

The Last Flight Julie Clark

The Last Flight by Julie Clark

The Last Flight is a page turner! I am still thinking about the characters in the book and I finished it months ago. It tells the story of two women with very different lives who make a last minute, desperate decision to switch identities at the airport to escape their lives. But then, one of the planes crashes. The story goes back and forth between the lives of Eva and Claire. There are lots of twists and turns. It will keep you guessing. You won’t be able to put it down. —Joy Scheller, Photo Operations Associate

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Ghosted is such a fun mystery — I couldn’t put it down! Sarah and Eddie fall in love after spending seven wonderful days together and then… he vanishes. Who can’t relate? But the harder she tries to find Eddie, the more Sarah must dig into a painful past she’s trying to forget. You won’t see the plot twists coming. This romantic thriller is the perfect escapism. —Morgan Smith, Editorial Assistant

the-dutch-house

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

This story of a brother-sister bond illustrates how family can be an anchor through any storm. Try the audio version with Tom Hanks narrating — a delight. — Wendy Naugle, Deputy Editor

the-odd-woman-and-the-city

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick

One of the best memoirs ever written about the rituals — and rigors — of friendship in Manhattan, that humming metropolis now on lockdown. — Tom Gliatto, Editor, Picks

severence

Severance by Ling Ma

Severance is eerily relevant and written with a sparse beauty that will make the pages fly by even though the subject matter is a sucker punch to a social distancing world. The story of a viral outbreak that infects the majority of the world’s minds, Severance will likely make you rethink what your priorities should be in times of crisis and calm. — Kelli Bender, Pets Editor

say-nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Tracing the courage, crimes and betrayals of real-life figures more complex and compelling than any fictional thriller’s, this acclaimed 2019 bestseller about the Troubles in Northern Ireland is one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time. Why spend time with a book about such violent history during our current troubles? The insights into human nature — idealistic, stubborn, yet capable of change — are timeless. — Samantha Miller, Executive Editor

bless-me-ultima

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Published in 1972, Anaya’s first book remains a classic in Chicano literature. The story is about Antonio, a 6-year-old boy who meets Ultima, la curandera, or healer, who opens his eyes so he can see the beauty of his surroundings in New Mexico, as well as the spiritual roots of his culture. The themes of good vs. evil and why it exists explains why this book is a timeless classic. — Elaine Aradillas, Staff Writer

winter-in-paradise

Winter in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand

Escape to St. John with this tale of a woman who learns her late husband had an island home and a mistress. She copes — and finds a new normal. — Dana Rose Falcone, Staff Writer

the-nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

While social distancing, holed up in my Maplewood, N.J. home, I’m nostalgic for roaming the streets of New York where I usually work and sometimes play — and this excellent read, with interwoven stories planted in the boroughs, has been a lovely escape. These characters dealing with family and money and family money with all the wicked ways it divides and unites, as well as chance encounters that lead to life-changing moments, feel like people I know. — Alicia Dennis, Senior Editor PEOPLE & Entertainment Weekly

The water dancer

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In his monumental first novel, Coates takes us to the South in the mid-1800s, where Hiram Walker is both the master’s son and a slave. Motherless, Hi finds love and family in fellow slaves Sophia and Thena. But after an accident nearly takes his life, he discovers something just as powerful: purpose in the Underground Railroad and the magic and freedom of memory. — Sam Gillette, Writer/Reporter, Books

unbroken

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Olympic-runner-turned WWII-pilot Louis Zamperini begins an odyssey of endurance after his plane crashes into the ocean. An inspiring true story about resilience. — Elaine Aradillas, Staff Writer

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

When our appealing if aimless narrator Lillian hears from old school frenemy Madison, she can’t help but come running. Lillian agrees to nanny Madison’s step-children after the death of their mother. Ten-year-old twins Bessie and Roland are — no room to be metaphorical about this: They burst into flames when agitated. They don’t burn, but everything around them does, including Wilson’s often funny and incandescent prose. — Allison Adato, Editor, PEOPLE Special Editions

free-food-for-millionares

Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Very rarely do I get to throw myself into a book that makes me feel so seen. Through protagonist Casey Han, Min Jin Lee perfectly articulates what it feels like to find yourself battling between two cultures as you try to navigate young adult life in New York City. Free Food for Millionaires is beautifully written and filled with characters you will love, hate and learn from. — Diane J. Cho, Features Editor

Daisy Jones and the Six

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Written in the style of an oral history, this breezy read about a legendary ‘70s rock band and the ill-fated love story that led to its untimely split will have you combing through the Rolling Stone archives double-checking whether Daisy Jones and the Six was actually a real band. (It’s not, but it sure does draw inspiration from definitely real bands like Fleetwood Mac.) Get it read before it hits the small screen as an upcoming Amazon Prime miniseries. — Rachel DeSantis, Writer/Reporter

such-a-fun-age

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid 

Reid’s sparkling debut explores the lives of 25-year-old Emira Tucker, who is black, and Alix Chamberlain, the white mom who hires Emira as a babysitter. The women negotiate that tricky relationship smoothly until the night Emira is confronted at a local store and accused of kidnapping the Chamberlains’ daughter. Emira wants to forget the incident; Alix can’t stop trying to make up for it. An entertaining tale with plenty to say about race, human connection and the pitfalls of good intentions. — Sam Gillette, Writer/Reporter, Books

Bonus: Bill Gates: These 5 books are so good, ‘they kept me up reading long past’ bedtime

  • “The Vital Question”
    By Nick Lane

“The Vital Question” explores the relationships between energy and genes. Despite its broad scope, the book’s fundamental interest also happens to be one of science’s greatest mysteries: How did life on Earth begin?

Lane, a biochemist, does an excellent job of illuminating and breaking down the complexities of biology. “He’s so intriguing,” Gates says in the video. “He seems to be the first guy who has looked into certain weird things about the mitochondria and has all sorts of ideas about diseases that really bear looking into.”

  • “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”
    By Yuval Noah Harari
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Gates isn’t the only person who enjoyed “Sapiens.” The book received a rating of 4.5 out of five stars (based on more than 500 reviews) on Google Play Books. Harari, a historian and philosopher, takes a look at the many possible reasons why Homo sapiens are so successful.

While Gates found things to disagree with — “especially Harari’s claims that humans were better off before we started farming,” he admits that the book gives us a better “understanding of what it means to be human.” (Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg also included “Sapiens” in their lists of favorites.)

  • “How to Not Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking”
    By Jordan Ellenberg

Ultimately, Gates says, this book is “a series of stories about how a lot of the apparently non-mathematical systems that underpin our daily lives are actually deeply mathematical, and people couldn’t develop them until they started asking the right questions.”

You don’t have to love math to enjoy “How to Not Be Wrong.” For what sounds like a potentially boring read, Gates praises Ellenberg’s ability to write about a complicated subject in a way that’s “funny, smooth and accessible.”

  • “The Power to Compete: An Economist and an Entrepreneur on Revitalizing Japan in the Global Economy” by Ryoichi and Hiroshi Mikitani

This book is centrally about Japanese economic prosperity from the perspectives of an economist and an entrepreneur. The authors, a father-son duo, examine the country’s core issues (i.e., its economy, education system, public infrastructure) and explore different solutions that could lead to revitalization.

It makes sense to see “The Power to Compete” on Gates’ list of must-reads: “I’ve had a soft spot for Japan that dates back three decades or so, when I first traveled there for Microsoft,” he says.

  • “Seveneves”
    By Neal Stephenson
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“Seveneves” begins with a catastrophic event: The moon just exploded — what happens next? In a race against time, global leaders work together to save humanity by launching spacecrafts beyond our atmosphere. This one is quite a gem, considering that you won’t find a ton of hard sci-fi novels on any of Gates’ book lists.

Unfortunately, neither Jeff Bezos nor Elon Musk makes an appearance, but Gates still calls it a “magnificent” and “visionary” read.

Read now, sleep later
Whether or not your book topic interests align with Gates’, he says there’s no science or math to his selection process. They’re “all simply ones that I loved and made me think in new ways,” he says.

(And anyway, if you’re going to let something keep you up at night, a book sounds a lot better than stress or anxiety.)

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