During this time of social distancing many of us have been looking for thoughtful ways to make the most of the time, and writers in various quarters have been queried for reading lists. When I was asked for suggested “quarantine reading” both by some of our MFA Writing students and by the Otis College Admissions department, I immediately solicited our core faculty for ideas. The list we’ve compiled truly reflects the diversity of our instructors.
Poet, editor, and translator Guy Bennett comes in with a typically international perspective; fiction author Marisa Matarazzo focuses mostly on women writers; poet, translator, and activist Jen Hofer's suggestions highlight her affinity for diversity and social justice. For my part, I was thinking about the cityscape right now—its austerity, its distilled light and sound. My selections (in my brain anyway) question how place and how the idea of nation and order change during periods of uncertainty. Also, I threw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because if you’re looking for an expansively humanist and quite long read right now, I think that’s the book.
Note: a good way to support independent bookstores and make sure they survive is to purchase your books online at https://bookshop.org/.
A few epidemic/quarantine-related works:
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio (Fiction) A classic, plague-related “fellowship” narrative, along the lines of the Canterbury Tales, The Heptameron, etc.
Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (Docu-Fiction) This is the work, among those I know, that most reminds me of our present moment. The parallels are almost shocking. Its genre ambiguity is also interesting.
Journey Around My Room, by Xavier de Maistre (Short Fiction) Another classic written by a man under house arrest.
The Burrow, by Franz Kafka (Short Fiction) This is a first-person narrative about an unspecified burrowing animal and its relationship to its home, which it doesn’t leave.
A few book suggestions for those wishing to reading about other things:
Adrenalin, by Ghayath Almadhoun (Poetry) A powerful collection by a contemporary Palestinian poet, well-published in Arabic and well-translated into other languages. This is his first (and only, to date) book in English.
Me & Other Writing, by Marguerite Duras (Essays) This is a recent translation of essays by Duras. Her non-fiction work is not known as well as it should be, so this is a noteworthy volume.
Complete Stories, by Clarice Lispector (Short Stories) A treasure-chest! Well worth reading even if there were no plague.
Things We Left Unsaid, by Zoya Pirzad (Fiction) This is one of only two English translations of a wonderful Armenian-Iranian writer. Her stories are even better than her novels, but none have been translated into English (yet).
“The Summer People,” from Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link (Short Story) Strange, magical, and the main character has a nasty flu.
Cruddy, by Linda Barry (Fiction) The voice is wild and the main character is a model of tough and enchanting resilience through bizarrely challenging situations.
Strange Pilgrims, by Gabriel García Marquez (Short Stories) This rumbles with the loneliness and isolation experienced in cities.
Slow Days, Fast Company, by Eve Babitz (Memoir, Essays) The opposite of social and physical distancing courses through these sexy tales of living in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Room, by Emma Donoghue (Fiction) Told from the perspective of a little boy held captive since his birth in a single, small room with his mother.
Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (Poetry) Featuring work on bodies of all types, somatic practices and somatic experiences, living with physically or physiologically imposed limitations, and the abiding resilience that can forge creativity out of physical challenge.
Puerto Rico en Mi Corazón, edited by Ricardo Maldonado, Erica Mena, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Carina del Valle Schorske (Poetry) A poetics of solidarity, compassion, and witness in the face of disaster.
Autobiography of Death, by Kim Hyesoon, translation by Don Mee Choi (Poetry) Don Mee Choi writes: “Each of the forty-nine poems in Autobiography of Death represents one of the forty-nine days during which the spirit roams about after death, before it enters the cycle of reincarnation.”
Attendance, by Rocío Carlos and Rachel Kaminer (a collaboration by Otis MFA Writing alumni) (Poetry) Meditative, political, embodied, observant, implacable: two friends “take attendance” daily, in an epistolary diary that focuses on the minutiae of everyday living juxtaposed with a broader social and relational context.
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon and Ecodeviance, by CA Conrad (Poetry) Somatic poetry rituals based in embodiments of queer language and radical politics—reminders that we can find or invent poetry anywhere, with whatever tools and resources we have at our disposal, reflecting perseverance in the face of extreme grief.
The Plague, by Albert Camus (Fiction) Probably the most talked about book of the moment, in large part because Camus understands what happens to the body politic when the human body is under attack.
Blindness, by José Saramago (Fiction) The Portuguese Nobelist imagines what happens when a population mysteriously starts going blind and anarchy replaces the rule of law.
The Childhood of Jesus and The School Days of Jesus, by JM Coetzee (the first two books in a trilogy of novels; the third,The Death of Jesus, will be out in May) (Fiction) A boy befriends a man as both become refugees in a strange, austere land. Many argue Coetzee’s worldview is bleak, but in that bleakness a kind of indefatigable humanity survives.
Ghosts, by César Aira (Novella) This is about families of workmen squatting in an unfinished luxury high-rise who see ghosts everywhere. The Argentinian miniaturist imagines a strange yet familiar urban landscape.
Those Who Knew, by Idra Novey (Fiction) Political and romantic intrigue on an unnamed island country, a place where certain women hold the keys to the future prosperity of their home. Novey was a recent guest at the MFA Writing program’s Visiting Writers Series.
Two more—my favorite book of last year, and the long classic I decided to re-read during quarantine:
The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez (Fiction) After a writer-professor’s friend and former mentor commits suicide, she ends up with his Great Dane. Both the woman and the dog must help each other work through their grief.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Fiction) One of my favorite novels—Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) writes with one of the most enduring and open-minded humanist sensibilities, which is very needed at this time I think.