Many people are suddenly finding themselves with extra unanticipated time at home because of COVID-19. There are lots of valuable ways one could choose to spend the time: cooking, calling loved ones, writing Medium posts about books, etc.
One common suggestion has been to read more. If you find yourself inclined to spend some of your unanticipated time at home reading, I’d like to recommend the following books, from one reader to another.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Wow guys, I’ve got to admit that I’m starting off this list strong. I just finished Lab Girl and was truly blown away. Lab Girl is one-part memoir, one-part botany guide. Written by English-major-turned-plant-scientist Dr. Hope Jahren, the book is a raw and beautifully written account of Jahren’s life as a women in science.
Jahren addresses the lack of funding for research science, pervasive sexism and misogyny in science and academia, her experiences being bipolar, and the beauty and complexity of human relationships. She does all this while interweaving lessons about the biology of trees and their gargantuan impact for life on this planet, alongside literary references ranging from Charles Dickens to the Bible.
I had the good fortune of listening to Lab Girl as an audio book, which I got from the library. Jahren reads the book herself in a voice completely in sync with her prose. She conveys so much emotion and humor that by the end of the book I felt like I had been listening to stories told by an old friend.
At a time when many scientists are working overtime to better understand the novel coronavirus, I cannot think of a better writer to help us appreciate the immense work and sacrifice that goes into being a good scientist.
Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond tells the true stories of eight different families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin all of whom have one thing in common: they are struggling to keep a home.
I read this book not long after it came out in 2016 while I was in law school. The book tells a compelling story that breathes life into the troubling statistics about eviction, homelessness, and poverty in the United States. As Desmond had argued, we are in a housing crisis, as evidenced by the 2.3 million evictions occurred in the United States in 2016 alone.
COVID-19 is only exacerbating this problem. Thankfully, many cities and states are taking steps to stop evictions during the outbreak, but housing problems will outlast this virus. For those struggling to keep a roof over their heads, Evicted may resonate with you, and for those of us who are not facing that struggle for the moment, Evicted may help you grasp the importance of adopting better housing policy and for pushing for more sustainable wages for our communities.
The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma
As my first two recommendations may have indicated, I tend to be more of a non-fiction kind of book nerd. But I figure any well-balanced set of book recommendations will include some fiction as well. And boy, do I ever recommend The Fishermen.
The Fisherman is the debut novel of Nigerian writer and English professor, Chigozie Obioma. I picked the book up recently at a Barnes & Noble. It was included in the Staff Recommendation section with a note from a staff member reading “An excellent debut novel that challenges the nature of belief and family bonds.” Between that description and my soft spot for Nigerian novelists like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, I couldn’t resist (and I’m glad I didn’t).
The novel is set in Nigeria in the late 1990s and tells the story of four brothers, and their family, as told from the perspective of the youngest of the four. Be forewarned that, following in the tradition of other notable great Nigerian novels, this is the story of an unraveling. It not the right choice if you’re looking for something upbeat. But it is an engrossing book and gorgeously written. And it ends with a note of hope.
Chigozie’s prose is sharp, live, and evocative. The story is rich with Nigerian history and language (including Igbo, Yoruba, and Pidgin English). And for my own part, this tale of unraveling speaks to the moment in which we find ourselves because of what it teaches about the significance of what we choose to believe and of how we respond to external events beyond our control.
Lilith, by George MacDonald
This is the only book on the list that falls into the category of fantasy. It is also the only book not published within the last 5 years.
“Why include this book out of all the possibilities?” you might ask. Well, because it’s one of my all time favorite books and because this is my list of book recommendations so why the heck not? The other reason is because this book is in the public domain, and as a result you can read it for free via Project Gutenberg or listen to it for free via LibriVox. Project Gutenberg and LibriVox are both great places to turn to for free books and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to mention them!
Lilith’s author, George MacDonald, was a late nineteenth century Scottish novelist and Christian minister. MacDonald was gifted with a generous heart, a big imagination, and a keen mind. All these things shine through clearly in his stories, which have influences generations of writers from L. Frank Baum and J. R. R. Tolkien to Neil Gaimon and Madeleine L’Engle.
Lilith tells the story of a man transported from his library (where else) to a dark fantasy world. While the novel has a certain heaviness to it, its message is ultimately one of radical hope and of divine renewal on the far side of darkness. MacDonald wrote prolifically, and any number of his works are worth reading, but Lilith is my personal favorite. Perhaps it is because it was the first novel of his I read, or perhaps it is because of the fabulous insight one can gain into MacDonald’s view on epistemology and religion. Whatever the reason, it is a book I return to again and again.
Educated, by Tara Westover
I know that this one has been all over best seller lists for a while now and has already been widely discussed. So I may seem a little late in the game discussing essayist and historian Tara Westover’s memoir Educated.
But I’m going to anyway.
First, because this book is amazing. Second, because I actually think the book is remarkably timely (and I’m not just talking about the quirky ways in which it promotes the value of hand washing). The book is also timely because of the fundamental questions it grapples with. Questions like “who should we trust?”, “how should we interact with society?”, and yes, “why is it a good idea to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom?”
Westover’s journey shows the power of an education. Part of that education is learning how to learn from social institutions designed to generate expert knowledge about things like viruses and the economy. It is also about the costs of thinking that you know better that medical professionals. (I’m still looking at you anti-vaxxers.)
But aside from all of that theoretical value, this memoir is just a delight to read. Westover’s story is engrossing and has earned praise from critics ranging from President Obama to my mom.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith
An extended period of time at home can make the world feel small and cramped. Thus, I wanted to conclude with a book that reminds us just how big, mysterious, and full of difference our planet really is.
In Other Minds, philosopher of biology, Peter Godfrey-Smith, uses his experiences as a diver and marine researcher to explore deep questions about the nature of consciousness. Godfrey-Smith thinks that mollusks like octopus, squid, and cuttlefish are particularly useful creatures to think about when it comes to the fundamental nature of consciousness. This is because among the earth’s highly intelligent animals, the mollusks are the least like us.
Most of earth’s highly intelligent animals such as dolphins, elephants, crows, monkeys, and humans, are all vertebrates. Thus, we all evolved from a more recent common branch on the evolutionary tree. But mollusks derive from a branching that occurred far earlier in the evolutionary development of life. Thus, Godfrey-Smith explains, advanced intelligence and robust consciousness developed a second time in mollusks.
By studying intelligent creatures whose intelligence evolved independently from our own, perhaps we can learn about what the fundamental aspects of consciousness and intelligence are, and what is a contingent product of our particular evolutionary journey. And Godfrey-Smith proves to be an excellent guide.
In addition, this book has some cool picture of octopuses and even discusses a real life “octopus city” off the Australian coast.
So while you’re stuck at home, let your mind travel far. Stay safe and wash your hands.