30 Books and Series to Read While Social Distancing

22 minute read

No matter what’s going on in the world, a good book can provide insight, comfort or a welcome escape. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues and many of us are seeking entertainment while staying home, reading offers some respite. Now may be the time to finally dig into that epic novel you’ve had on your shelf forever, revisit an old favorite or try something out of your reading comfort zone.

Thankfully, books are easy to access without leaving home. Libraries across the map allow cardholders to borrow e-books and audiobooks without visiting a branch (try the free Libby app, which connects you to your local library so you can easily search for the titles you want). Several companies are also offering free e-books and audiobooks right now. A few of those offers include a 30-day free trial to the reading subscription service Scribd and 30 free ebooks to choose from through April 2 at the nonprofit press Archipelago Books. Several classic children’s audiobook titles are also available for teachers and children on Penguin Random House’s Volumes App.

If you’d like to purchase a book, consider browsing the website of your local independent bookstore. We’ve included purchase links for each book on this list through Indiebound, where you can search for the closest store that carries the book you’d like to buy. This will not only help local small businesses in a time of need, but also might get the book to your doorstep faster than Amazon, which is prioritizing shipping household and medical supplies.

Everyone has different ways of coping with the events of the outbreak; these books will allow you to get however close or far from what’s going on outside as you want. From stories of pandemics and post-apocalyptic societies and triumphant narratives about spending time alone to pure page-turning escapism, here are 30 books and series to read while staying home.

Books about pandemics and post-apocalyptic worlds

If you’re looking to lean into the themes of the moment, these novels will take you deep inside imagined crises and the resilient characters who face them.

World War Z, Max Brooks

Max Brooks’ “oral history” of a virus that originated in China and spread across the world, transforming millions of people into zombies, is so much more than the Brad Pitt action adaptation makes it out to be. The novel is a sweeping look at the sociopolitical response to a pandemic—and a thriller to boot. Brooks described (with startling prescience) how different countries reacted to the major virus: In just the first few chapters, the Chinese government tries to cover up the virus’ spread, and the U.S. government, in the midst of an election year, is too slow to react to the impending catastrophe. (The book was banned in China.) Brooks’ profound insight: The real threat isn’t the virus or even the zombies—it’s our psychological response, namely denial and panic.

Buy Now: World War Z

The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s trilogy (The Passage, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors), set in the near-future, follows the grim ramifications of a secret government project gone wrong. In attempting to extend human life, scientists created a drug with some nasty side effects, infecting most of the world’s population and turning them into something like vampires. A group of survivors band together—as most do in post-apocalyptic fiction—but The Passage takes a turn when the characters realize they need to team up with a six-year-old girl. In tracing the child’s connection to those who are infected, Cronin sets up an epic saga of brutality, heroism and heart.

Buy Now: The Passage

The Broken Earth trilogy, N. K. Jemisin

In N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, the only people with the power to protect their world from recurring cataclysms are also its most oppressed. The acclaimed series is set in the Stillness, a hostile continent that is anything but still or stable. There, magic-wielders called orogenes can prevent or reduce the impact of the Stillness’ regular seismic events, but because of this gift, they are attacked and subjugated. Jemisin, who made history with this trilogy as the first person to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel, employs interweaving narratives—and occasional sleight of hand—to center the orogenes’ stories amidst the end of the world.

Buy Now: The Fifth Season

Severance, Ling Ma

As a catastrophic fever plagues the world, New Yorker Candace Chen continues to work at her job producing specialized Bibles. Dedicated to her routine and miraculously still well, Candace is offered a big bonus if she continues commuting to her office. The novel flips between those harrowing days as the illness festers and Candace’s uncertain future, when she teams up with a group of fellow survivors in the hopes of starting a new society. A bleak but funny commentary on our obsession with work, Severance asks how we can survive when much of everyday life becomes unrecognizable.

Buy Now: Severance

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

After a swine flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population, a group of musicians and actors travel around newly formed settlements to keep their art alive. In following the troupe’s journey, Emily St. John Mandel showcases the impact of the pandemic on all of their lives. The novel, a 2014 National Book Award finalist, weaves together characters’ perspectives from across the planet and over several decades to explore how humanity can fall apart and then, somehow, come back together.

Buy Now: Station Eleven

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

The novel that has spawned a hundred “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” headlines, Gabriel García Márquez’s literary classic has been called one of the greatest love stories ever told. (The 2007 movie adaptation, on the other hand, is probably worth skipping.) Published in Spanish in 1985 and translated into English three years later, Love in the Time of Cholera begins a century earlier, in an unnamed city similar to Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are young and falling passionately in love when Fermina chooses to marry someone else; it takes nearly 51 years for their love to be fulfilled. Against a backdrop of recurring civil war and recurring cholera epidemics, Márquez explores death, decay and the idea of lovesickness as disease. Márquez, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, offers a lyrical escape to the sensual, sensory landscape of turn-of-the-century South America.

Buy Now: Love in the Time of Cholera

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

It’s a frigid winter in post-apocalyptic America, and an unnamed father and son are struggling to stay alive as they travel across deserted terrain. The somewhat traditional dystopian premise of The Road soon gives way to a story that raises complex questions about morality, parenting and the lengths that humans will go to survive. Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a film starring Viggo Mortensen, offers twists, turns and an uneasy, unforgettable ending.

Buy Now: The Road

The Book of M, Peng Shepherd

The afflicted first lose their shadows. Then they begin to forget everything they’ve ever known. Peng Shepherd’s eerily magical The Book of M chronicles a world in crisis as an inexplicable plague spreads across the globe, viewed through the eyes of a young couple, desperate to protect one another. Max snuck away from their shared hideout after her shadow disappeared, and Ory would do anything to bring his wife home safe again. At the heart of the novel—which Lost executive producer Liz Sarnoff optioned for television in 2019—is a timeless question about the meaning of memory.

Buy Now: The Book of M

Zone One, Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead’s 2011 book isn’t your typical zombie apocalypse story. Blending literary fiction, humor and horror, Whitehead centers Zone One around a civilization split into two: the living and the living dead. After a pandemic has ravaged the earth, the leftover population attempts to rebuild while coping with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. The novel focuses on a fragmented New York City, where characters quickly discover the difficulties of upholding order in the midst of chaos.

Buy Now: Zone One

Books about solitude

For the people in these memoirs and novels, time alone—whether self-enforced, mandated by a higher power or resulting from tragedy—provides opportunity for introspection and growth.

Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala

In 2004, economist Sonali Deraniyagala was vacationing with her family off the Sri Lankan shore when, in an instant, everything changed. The Indian Ocean tsunami blew through their beach resort and killed Deraniyagala’s husband, parents and two young sons. Full of rage and guilt over being her family’s lone survivor, Deraniyagala is forced to bear unimaginable grief, which she describes in gutting terms in one of TIME’s picks for the best nonfiction books of the decade. But in remembering her old life, she works to assemble a liveable present and reminds us all how to move forward in the wake of devastation.

Buy Now: Wave

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh

Can you sleep away your problems? That’s what Ottessa Moshfegh’s nameless protagonist ponders before embarking on a year-long journey of extreme rest to reset her life after a series of tragedies. This is no wellness saga, however; the young woman spends her time and her ample inheritance on a melange of pills prescribed to her by a daffy psychiatrist, while avoiding her needy frenemy and a toxic on-again, off-again paramour. When her endless pursuit for hibernation coincides with a monumental catastrophe, she finds a haunting solution to her issues with engaging with the world and others.

Buy Now: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

At 26 years old, Cheryl Strayed had never backpacked. But following the dissolution of her marriage and the agonizing loss of her mother, she set out to hike over one thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—by herself. Strayed’s memoir, written in gripping and granular detail, recounts her journey as she walked from California to Washington, carrying all that she needed to live on her back. Reflecting on what led her to this moment, Strayed contemplates her past in several moving flashbacks and reveals how being alone might actually be what puts her back together.

Buy Now: Wild

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau has been the subject of a snarky reevaluation over the last few years: the New Yorker called Walden “the original cabin porn” and Twitter took him to task over the idea that his mom did his laundry. But there’s still plenty to glean from his 1854 work, which practically lays out a manual for social distancing. Thoreau finds joy in housework and the sounds of daily life that ring out around him; he champions self-reliance, introspection and environmentalism. And sections about escaping the constant distractions of modern life ring even more true in the digital age. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids,” he wrote, “But by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Buy Now: Walden

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

After the Russian Revolution, an aristocrat is sentenced to serve a life sentence under house arrest in the attic of the luxurious Metropol hotel. Amor Towles’ quietly crushing story begins in 1922 and spans decades as it traces the protagonist’s new relationship with the world, which he can view only from within the hotel’s walls. The book, which has sold over 1.5 million copies, is a stirring portrait of one man’s reliance on memory and imagination to maintain his resilience in isolation.

Buy Now: A Gentleman in Moscow

The Martian, Andy Weir

After encountering a dangerous dust storm on Mars, a crew of astronauts think one of their own, Mark Watney, has died. Believing he was fatally struck by debris, the crew make the excruciating decision to return to earth without Watney—not knowing that he is actually alive. Stranded, and with few supplies, the astronaut must use his engineering skills to survive alone on Mars. The fast-paced narrative, made into a 2015 movie starring Matt Damon, examines how one person’s perseverance and creativity can carry him through an unthinkable trial.

Buy Now: The Martian

Solitary, Albert Woodfox

In 2016, Albert Woodfox was released from prison. He was the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the U.S., having spent four decades in a nine-by-six foot cell in Louisiana, allowed out for only an hour each day. Solitary, his memoir, tells a harrowing story of being convicted of a murder he has long maintained he did not commit; of suffering from the deeply entrenched racism at Angola prison; of becoming an activist, teaching other prisoners to read and organizing hunger strikes. He was released at the age of 69 as part of a plea deal with Louisiana prosecutors. “Sometimes my knees would shake and almost buckle,” he writes in the memoir. “I forced myself to learn how not to give in to fear.”

Buy Now: The Solitary

Books you’ve never had time to read

These ambitious books are long, yes, but also deeply rewarding for those who commit to getting through them. Now is a great time to tackle something you’ve always found a little daunting. Some books need to teach their readers how to engage with them—don’t give up in the early pages.

Middlemarch, George Eliot

George Eliot was nothing if not a realist: Her masterwork Middlemarch is about marriage, work and the disappointment that can be found in both of those endeavors. That is not to say that this sprawling novel, a must-read classic, is a depressing work. The fan-favorite character of Dorothea encounters frustrations as a woman navigating the constraints of patriarchal society but striving to do her best. And Eliot ultimately instills in the reader the timely and potent sentiment that small acts of kindness can make a difference. Even if achieving happiness or moral perfection is impossible, striving for such lofty goals improves the world.

Buy Now: Middlemarch

The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante

Has anyone captured the complex richness of a female friendship more triumphantly than Elena Ferrante? Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym in what might be one of literature’s greatest unsolved mysteries, looks unflinchingly at the most challenging and familiar dynamics between two women. Her enthralling series of four novels—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child—charts the saga of two women and their bond. Lila and Lenú grapple with their desires as cultural upheaval rages around them in Southern Italy, and Ferrante breathes life into characters that are, by turn, flawed, infuriating, captivating, difficult, obsessed—and ultimately, real. Following the lives of the two women from childhood through old age, Ferrante makes the case that a true female friendship is not always perfect or empowering, but can be the greatest love story of all.

Buy Now: My Brilliant Friend

The Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel recently told TIME that she considers her Wolf Hall trilogy to be a single novel, and at a combined 2,000-plus pages you won’t need other reading material for weeks. Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light are first and foremost an immersive character study of the historical figure Thomas Cromwell, who rose through the ranks of Tudor society to become King Henry VIII’s chief enforcer. But the series is also a vibrant political drama, examining the nature of power in the churches and palaces of early 16th-century London. Mantel wields a playwright’s grasp of dialogue, a historian’s understanding of the time and a novelist’s eye for detail. The books require your full attention, but the investment is worth it.

Buy Now: Wolf Hall

The Toni Morrison canon

Few authors have provided more immersive reading experiences than the late Toni Morrison: her visual, aural and olfactory details are startlingly evocative, while her narratives unfurl over decades of tension with epic climaxes. While Beloved, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner, is near the top of the American canon, 1981’s Tar Baby is just as mesmerizing in telling an unlikely love story—as is Song of Solomon, which follows an African American man from birth to adulthood as he grapples with magic, murder, opression and the search for lost treasure. But all of her novels, written over 45 years, deserve to be read and re-read as testaments to American pain, perseverance and joy.

Buy Now: Beloved

1Q84, Haruki Murakami

As with most Haruki Murakami novels, 1Q84 is that strange brew of hard-boiled detective fiction, nonchalant surrealism and melancholy unique to the Japanese master. As every review of this book ever has stated, it would be impossible to summarize the plot here; suffice it to say that it involves parallel worlds, malevolent religious cults, an assasin, a tribe of small magical beings and metaphysical sex. But the plot isn’t the point. (Murakami has said the novel is basically a variation on the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-seeks-girl theme of his short story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning.“) Reading 1Q84 is more about sinking into a mood, a dreamlike atmosphere where the mundane can shift almost imperceptibly to the fantastic, and moments of insight are found while chopping celery and mushrooms. Murakami’s ambitious book is consistently hypnotic and often intoxicating, the best kind of fiction to spend a long stretch of time with. (Bonus: Murakami is big on music—listen to this playlist as an accompaniment.)

Buy Now: 1Q84

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

A novel on everyone’s I-feel-like-I-should-read-that list, War and Peace is a sprawling story about fundamental change. Through war and the political and social upheaval that follow, Leo Tolstoy shows his characters transforming into completely different people. Some 500 characters appear in these chapters, but the sheer number of experiences help to capture humanity in the way that novels told from one character’s point of view cannot. There is a notion floating out there among various undergraduates assigned to read Tolstoy that you ought to skip all the “war” parts of War and Peace (and the agricultural bits of Anna Karenina). You should do neither. The passages are long but cinematic—and only when we wade through them can we, like Tolstoy’s characters, find the deeper meaning.

Buy Now: War and Peace

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

The 1,079-paged Infinite Jest, a favorite reading challenge for writer types, is wildly entertaining—once you get into it. The main characters are eccentric and extraordinary (think The Royal Tenenbaums). The book is intellectually omnivorous, imparting lessons on linguistics, science, history, film and media theory, medicine and more. It’s also hilarious, in a sharp, biting way that’s as tonally relevant as ever. In fact, the novel, published in 1996, feels intensely prescient, with main plot points built around opioid addiction, a separatist/nationalist political movement and the commodification of everyday life (the book starts in the Year of the Whopper), as well as an atemporal structure that feels a little like the internet. Underneath the whiz-bang style and invention is a serious moral fiction about family, relationships, sadness and how to make meaning in life. If the size feels forbidding, cut the book in half. David Foster Wallace, who scribbled notes and annotations inside almost every book he owned, certainly wouldn’t care.

Buy Now: Infinite Jest

Escapist thrillers, fantasies and super fun books

Sometimes, we need to laugh, get caught up in a page-turning adventure or just let our minds wander elsewhere. These novels and personal stories will draw you in and take you far away.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite

How strong are the bonds of sisterhood, really? Korede is curious. Her younger sister Ayoola has just killed off boyfriend number three and Korede, a nurse, again helped her clean the crime scene and move the body. But she’s getting frustrated with Ayoola—her prettier, probably sociopathic counterpart—especially as she narrows in on her next target. This electric, innovative comedy from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite asks just how durable love is as Korede must decide whether she’d rather stand by her sister or watch Ayoola face the harsh consequences of her actions.

Buy Now: My Sister, the Serial Killer

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron

Writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron’s mother once told her that “everything is copy,” an adage that Ephron took to heart with her treasured collection of witty and hilarious essays about the challenges and triumphs of being a modern woman who’s growing older. From lamenting her neck wrinkles and the turtlenecks she turns to hide them (which prompts her to implore younger readers to, “go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34!”) to rapturously extolling the joy of losing yourself in a book, Ephron’s delightful essays will speak to readers of all ages.

Buy Now: I Feel Bad About My Neck

The IQ series, Joe Ide

While novels about hotshot detectives have thrived since the days of Sherlock Holmes, Joe Ide delivers a fresh and wholly modern update to the genre. His protagonist is Isaiah “IQ” Quintabe, a high school dropout who lives in Long Beach, Calif., and uses deduction and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of the city’s cutthroat underworld. Ide’s rapid-paced, colorful dialogue pops off the page as he brings to life rappers, arms dealers, loan sharks and gangsters across four novels: IQ, Righteous, Wrecked and Hi Five.

Buy Now: IQ

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

The fourth novel by Booker Prize winner Marlon James is a doorstopping epic tale of bravery, violence and betrayal. Often referred to as an “African Game of Thrones,” the saga follows Tracker, a mercenary tasked with locating a missing boy. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first entry in a promised trilogy, finds its characters traversing ancient lands and interacting with shapeshifters, deadly beasts and more mysterious creatures. James’ dense prose is rich, imaginative, challenging and intensely transporting.

Buy Now: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, Kevin Kwan

Kevin Kwan used his upbringing in a wealthy Singaporean family as the inspiration for his satirical Crazy Rich Asians series, which is endearingly relatable despite its displays of lavish excess. The trilogy focuses on the moneyed elite of Singapore, whose luxurious lives and personal dramas verge on the ridiculous. No number of mansions, fancy cars or designer gowns can solve familial strife or cure romance woes—and it’s a testament to Kwan’s measured sense of humor that he can turn rich people problems into a fun and incredibly humanizing romp. (Bonus: Watch the celebrated movie adaptation of the first book in the series.)

Buy Now: Crazy Rich Asians

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid

It’s becoming increasingly impossible for babysitter Emira Tucker to maintain professional boundaries with her employer, Alix Chamberlain. While at the grocery store with her toddler charge, Emira is accused by a white stranger of kidnapping the child. The tense situation—which is caught on video—makes Alix desperate to understand and prove her support of Emira, but she quickly crosses into a state of obsession with the babysitter’s life as a young black woman. Moving between the two women’s perspectives, debut novelist Kiley Reid weaves together a hilarious, uncomfortable and compulsively readable story about race and class.

Buy Now: Such a Fun Age

The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

When Harry Potter fans are in crisis, they turn to the wizarding world for comfort and moral direction. After all, an entire generation grew up learning the differences between right and wrong, bravery and fear, acceptance and bigotry from J.K. Rowling’s stories of a great wizarding war. The Harry Potter series can function as pure escapism: the books will automatically transport you into your own fantasies of receiving a Hogwarts acceptance letter and a pet owl. They also serve as incredible entertainment, fast-paced and intricately plotted. If you haven’t read the series yourself or to your kids, perhaps now is the time. The lessons on how to support and empathize with the vulnerable are needed more than ever. (Bonus: Listen to the Ringer’s beloved deep-dive podcast, Binge Mode: Harry Potter, as you go.)

Buy Now: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

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