9 Authors on the Books That Got Them Through a Year of the Pandemic

7 minute read

A year into the pandemic, readers know more than ever: the act of picking up a book can be transformative. When lockdown orders swept the U.S. beginning in March 2020, many turned to books to help escape—or confront—the unknown. Some readers favored light distraction, while others flocked to narratives that tackled pandemics head-on. Virtual book clubs kept readers connected, and rallying cries to support independent bookstores echoed around the Internet. While we were confined to our homes, books kept us going and allowed us to discover new worlds without going anywhere. To reflect on a year of reading in isolation, TIME asked nine fan-favorite authors to share the books that have brightened their days, provoked them or simply helped carry them through.

Charles Yu

The National Book Award–winning author of Interior Chinatown chose Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland, a comprehensive examination of fake news and the post-truth world.

“I listened to it first as an audiobook during the early days of the pandemic, while taking long walks around the empty streets of my neighborhood. It provides context, history and insight as to how we arrived at this age of misinformation and delusion. Between COVID denial and election-fraud conspiracies, I found Andersen’s analysis to be essential in a difficult and confusing year.”

Buy Now: Fantasyland on Bookshop | Amazon

Tara Westover

Over the past year, the author of Educated discovered the power of poetry through Mary Oliver’s dissection of nature and everyday moments in collections like Blue Horses.

 “During the pandemic, for the first time in my life, I started reading poetry. A true beginner, I started where many others have started, with Mary Oliver. First I read her poems, then I memorized them. In particular I memorized ‘The Journey’ and ‘Invitation’ and ‘Owl Poem.’ I got into the habit of reciting them every afternoon as I walked my dog Leo, and this ritual came to feel like a meditation. It was soothing, rather than repetitive. Now I’m on the hunt for more poets.”

Buy Now: Blue Horses on Bookshop | Amazon

Jasmine Guillory

The romance novelist behind best sellers like The Wedding Date and Party of Two turned to mysteries with Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, the first in a series about a crime-solving archeologist.

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (and the entire Ruth Galloway series) got me through some of the hardest parts of this pandemic year. They’re mysteries, set in Norfolk, England, starring Ruth Galloway, a frumpy, brilliant, hilarious archaeology professor. I read the entire series in about one month, at the same time as two of my best friends. Having these books to read (and reread), and our weekly discussions of Ruth, her adventures and her complicated romantic life, helped sustain me when it felt like there was nothing to look forward to.”

Buy Now: The Crossing Places on Bookshop | Amazon

George Saunders

The Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain selected Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, the beloved novel about the adventures of a chivalry-obsessed knight and his squire.

“The one that comes to mind is Don Quixote (which I’m still working on—I am on page 682 of 982 in the John Rutherford translation). I’ve started it before, but somehow, in the relative quiet of the pandemic, it finally got its hooks into me and I am loving it and being educated by it. A truly strange, lumpy, funny, wise book that seems to both praise and blame human passion, and romance, and aspiration … The reason it didn’t click before, I think, was that life was too fast. It’s paced ­differently—yields a bigger pop in exchange for a more abiding patience on the reader’s part.”

Buy Now: Don Quixote on Bookshop | Amazon

Casey McQuiston

The author of Red, White & Royal Blue and the forthcoming novel One Last Stop turned to Tamsyn Muir’s epic fantasy Gideon the Ninth, the first in a trilogy about a teen orphan navigating a haunted solar system.

My quarantine would not have been the same without the hilarious and masterfully irreverent Gideon the Ninth (and its brain-breaking sequel, Harrow the Ninth), which dragged me out of a reading slump with one beefy sword arm. These books reminded me it was still possible to love something so hard that it’s all I want to think about for weeks, even in the thick of it all.”

Buy Now: Gideon the Ninth on Bookshop | Amazon

Emma Straub

The bookseller and author of novels like All Adults Here and The Vacationers selected Carson Ellis’ picture book In the Half Room, an imaginative look at what happens when a room is no longer whole.

 “All parents of young children know the truth, which is that no matter what book you’re reading for pleasure, you read and reread and reread picture books a thousand more times a day. My favorite picture book of the year, and therefore, really, my favorite book of the year, is In the Half Room by Carson Ellis, which is as classic and off-kilter as any good Margaret Wise Brown [author of Goodnight Moon]. It’s a perfect bedtime book, which is the hour when you know you’ve made it through, one more time.”

Buy Now: In the Half Room on Bookshop | Amazon

Kevin Kwan

The author of Crazy Rich Asians and Sex and Vanity chose Sandi Tan’s forthcoming novel Lurkers, an ensemble drama following the residents of one Los Angeles neighborhood.

Lurkers, Sandi Tan’s brilliant new novel, was an amazing gift during this year of so much loss. Tan’s riveting storytelling opens a portal into the private lives of a diverse and remarkable cast of ­characters—each of whom is audacious, bizarre, hilarious and all too human in ways that reminded me of the tenderness and beauty to be found in unexpected places and the preciousness of every life lived.”

Buy Now: Lurkers on Bookshop | Amazon

Emily St. John Mandel

While many readers turned to Mandel’s pandemic-centric novel Station Eleven, the author herself found comfort in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, the story of a teenage girl who sets out searching for answers in the wake of her brother’s disappearance.

“I very rarely reread books, but I’ve read Monkey Beach three times. The book connects me with a happier time, because of course I remember reading it before the pandemic. Also, the book is set in British Columbia, which is where I’m from. My family’s still there. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen them in 15 months. Reading a book set in that landscape is a strange kind of solace.”

Buy Now: Monkey Beach on Amazon

Kiley Reid

For the first time in her life, the author of Such a Fun Age picked up George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the classic satire that takes on totalitarianism through the story of rebellious farm animals.

“I didn’t read this novel when everyone else did—­seemingly sometime in high school—but coming to it now was a complete delight. I listened to the audiobook on long walks, and I found myself thankful to be wearing a mask in moments where I could not help but laugh out loud. It’s disturbingly accurate, surprisingly emotional, and truly, it’s the absolute perfect length.”

Buy Now: Animal Farm on Bookshop | Amazon

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Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com