Good Reading for Hard Times

Perhaps you are looking forward to today’s inaugural activities, either with pleasure or as a witness. Perhaps, however, like me, you have been absorbing the news with increasing concern (not to say despair — never despair), and, while you have been making plans for strong action in the coming years, you would like to spend today peacefully away from any source of news, reading something good.

Well, what’s good? Something purely escapist, that will help you forget it all for a few hours? Something uplifting, that will give you hope? Something by an author from a marginalized group, so you can show solidarity and maybe open up your horizons? Something that will remind you that literature and art are here to make connections in our world? I’ve got some suggestions for you!

If You Just Want to Forget Everything For A While:

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan. This novel, narrated by Jake Marlowe, a 201-year-old, whiskey-drinking aesthete of a werewolf, the last of his kind, is breathless, witty, ironic, fast-paced, and fabulous. Look out for purple prose, but it’s well-earned.

11/22/63 , by Stephen King. What if you could go back in time and change the world — but only to one specific spot? This is what happens to Jake Epping, who discovers he can travel back in time, but only to October, 1958. Can he save John Kennedy, and by so doing, save Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, millions in Vietnam? Find out in this great, suspenseful time-travel novel.

Bellwether, by Connie Willis. This is an extremely funny book about fads and chaos theory, luck, work, and inspiration, exasperation, and the way love can bloom in a weird environment. If it doesn’t make you laugh (even today), I’ll be very, very surprised.

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier. If you’ve only read Rebecca, you’ve only just started. This is a thrilling, sinister Gothic romance in a great tradition, with touches only du Maurier can do right.

High Rising, by Angela Thirkell. Actually, you could read any of Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles and be equally delighted, charmed, and amused, but this is the first one and it’s satisfying to start with.

If You Would Like Something Uplifting For a Change:

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. A book about how action results from and produces hope, even if we don’t know anything about our possible futures.

Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. This wonderful, immensely readable book on neuropsychology first debunks many old experiments that claimed men were more intelligent or more able than women, then posits that our brains are molded by our environments. If we have a more just society, we will have more just brains. Simple as that, right?

Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. These books (about writing and the first year of having a baby, respectively) revolve around the importance of friendship, faith, love, sobriety, forgiveness, and Cheetos. They are some of my mainstays.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even the smallest person can make a difference.

Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War, by Agnès Humbert. This story of fighting back against the Nazi occupation of France will fill you with determination and pride.

If You Would Like to Create Solidarity With Your Reading:

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This letter to Coates’s son, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (another good selection!) is an indictment, a memoir, and a manifesto.

Americanah, by Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie. This is a book about being an immigrant, about being a NAB (Non-American Black) in a racialized country, about being a woman in a patriarchy — and it’s also about a long relationship, and about the meaning of home.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. This wordless book shows you what it means to make a life in a really, really new place.

There but for the, by Ali Smith. This novel is a marvelously strange construction of humor and seriousness, about a man who has been invited to a dinner party by total strangers (it’s implied that he’s there because he’s gay — they like to invite people who are “different.”) In the middle of the party, he goes upstairs, locks himself into the spare room, and won’t… come… out. The way Smith unfolds meaning like a paper flower from this premise is glorious.

All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister. A comprehensive, readable, sensible look at single womanhood in the United States.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. This novel begins with a crime — rape and attempted murder — and should feel isolating. But it is about community and shared pain, and the complicated limits of that community. A great choice from a great author.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is in the voice of a woman who has known abandonment and homelessness, poverty, loss, danger, and distance from mainstream, middle-class values all her life. Her deep, intuitive understanding, her reach for words to express her knowledge, and her yearning for love and relationship (even while she is wary of it) make this one of the best books I’ve read in years.


If you are reading today, I wish you peace and contentment. What will you be reading, if anything? What would you add to this list — any of the categories? Would you add a category? If you aren’t reading, what are you doing?

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32 Responses to Good Reading for Hard Times

  1. Lisa says:

    I would say despair – and even now an element of disbelief.

    Thank you for this post, and for a list of books to consider. I am reading Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a book of her short stories, as I did on the night of the election. I’m trying to figure out why I’m so drawn to her right now.

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m working today, but I’m going to spend the evening reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. It’s in the solidarity category, for sure, and I’d like to give copies to every single member of Congress and the new administration.

    I’ll also be working on my church’s website redesign–it feels good to have a useful project to focus on. And then tomorrow, I march!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll be marching tomorrow, too!

      I’m looking forward to your post on White Rage — I know there are a number of books that have come out, analyzing our divided country, and I’m interested to know about this one.

  3. writerrea says:

    I’m in despair too, but trying to stay focused. I’m reading Jane Eyre for a group read-along.

    • Jenny says:

      I think Jane Eyre is a wonderful choice. Her independent spirit and strong moral compass are such a good role model for people going through difficult times. She never gives up!

  4. Cara says:

    Thank you so much for this post! It is just what I need this morning as I try to figure out how to get though the day without completely despairing. Thanks for the reminder that there is always hope. Now off to the library for a stack of books!

    • Jenny says:

      Reading has so much to teach us about connection, empathy, and hope. I do believe that we can make a difference in our communities, no matter what else happens.

  5. lbloxham says:

    I’m reading two things: The German Girl, Armando Lucas Correa, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on Mumbai’s undercity.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Thank you for this list. I would add Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

  7. Linda says:

    I spent my morning finishing The Painter by Peter Heller, which was just beautiful. I spent some time compiling a list of books that inspire hope, which I’ll be posting next week. It’s not complete, but a few of the titles are The Arrival, which you mentioned above, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I also baked a batch of cookies and ate more of them than I’d like to admit. (Hey, it beats day drinking.)

    • Jenny says:

      Just barely. :)

      Those sound like great titles. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole list, and hearing why you chose the ones you did. These things are so personal, I love to read them.

  8. Swistle says:

    What a good idea for a list. I am reading Americanah right now, on an earlier recommendation from you.

  9. Elle says:

    I spent today reading The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays on the black/ethnic minority experience in Britain, edited by Nikesh Shukla. It’s been taking the UK publishing world by storm, though I don’t know if it’s available in the States yet.

    • Jenny says:

      That sounds fantastic! I would love to read something like that. And it sounds like a fascinating companion piece to Americanah.

      • Elle says:

        It focuses on the immigrant experience in the UK, but yes, I think it would make a superb side-by-side read with Americanah. Both books made me more aware, not just of the shit people of colour put up with on a daily basis but of the smaller or less obvious instances of prejudice and discrimination that I regularly commit, too.

  10. Wholeheartedly endorse your inclusion of Bellwether in this list Jenny – a wonderfully intelligent romantic comedy, sure to make you smile.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m someone who thinks Connie Willis can (nearly) do no wrong — but Bellwether is especially fun, and not too long either!

  11. Deb says:

    All day yesterday I kept thinking of the opening lines of Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER:

    “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

  12. Stefanie says:

    Fabulous list! I went for The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl volume 4 this weekend. Also, The Secret Life of Trees. Ha! Squirrels and trees, I just realized that :)

  13. Loved your lists. I firmly believe that reading (and buying, promoting, etc) books by and about marginalized groups is an act of resistance.

  14. Thanks for these, friend. I am depending so much on books these days (and, I mean, always, but especially lately) to keep my spirits up, whether it’s by taking me away for a little while or by teaching me about new things I need to know to resist more effectively or to understand the world we’re finding ourselves in. Both are so important. You are awesome btw and I am glad to know you. <3

    • Jenny says:

      Aw, Jenny. I am so often in awe of your strength, humor, and compassion. I am so honored to be your friend and so glad to learn from you. {{hug}}

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