Books to read during confinement

Many of us are whiling away the viral hours by reading; I read at least three hours per evening and have a large enough stock of books to see me through a few weeks. I thought it would be useful for us to recommend readings for each other. I’ve read several books recommended by readers, and thought I’d proffer my own choices.  I’ll mention just two today (one is a quintet), but by all means give us a few suggestions.  Providing Amazon links is also useful because many libraries and bookstores are closed.

Click on the screenshots below to go to the Amazon links.

Native Son by Richard Wright. I’ve just finished this one, and, as I recall, I read it years and years ago. (It’s a sign of my age that I can’t remember for sure.) At any rate, this time the book seemed new to me, and I have to say that it is a great classic. Before it was written in 1940, there was really no “Negro literature”, as Wright calls it in his postscript. The book was an immediate best seller, and has been repeatedly banned in schools for sexual situations and profanity. But those are integral parts of the plot.

In brief, it’s the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man of 20 who lives on the South Side of Chicago, gets a job as a chauffeur for a white family (in Hyde Park!), and then commits a murder (actually two). I will say no more, but as a portrayal of the oppression of black people during that period, and its resultant effects on the psyche, it’s at once superb and depressing. A lot of the issues (pondered by Wright for many years before he wrote the book) are brought out in conversations between Bigger and his lawyer in jail. And many of those issues still remain: the South Side is still an African-American ghetto, and the psychological effects of this sequestration and lingering racism still must work their effects on people. Highly recommended.

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. These four volumes (The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and A Division of the Spoils) must be supplemented by reading the sequel Staying On, which won the Man Booker Prize. This gives you five books to read while you’re waiting for the curve to flatten (if it ever does).

I consider this the finest work of postwar fiction in English, but not many have read it. (Christopher Hitchens agreed on its merits: go here for his short take and here for his 21-page essay.) Like Forster’s earlier Passage to India, it’s the story of a rape, both literal and metaphorical, the metaphorical one being the rape of India (“the Jewel in the Crown”) by the British. The complexity of the situation, as the days of British rule wane, is exquisitely outlined in Scott’s novel, which deals with a love affair between an Indian man and a British woman. (Note: it deals more with the British than the Indians.)

The complex plot is one draw; another is the writing, which is lyrical and beautiful. From the very first page I was hooked: here are the opening four paragraphs. When I read the first two paragraphs, the feeling of being in India immediately returns to me.

Here’s the novel, and the series of four volumes (don’t forget the fifth!) is amazingly cheap: from about $6 including free shipping from various sellers:

In 1984 a 14-part series was produced by Granada Television, and it’s available as a DVD on eBay for a pittance. It is a wonderful production that won all sorts of accolades (in fact, I was given my copy of the quartet by the show’s assistant producer). If you can’t stomach five volumes, how about 14 hours of good video?

We’re all shut-ins now, so help out your brothers and sisters by recommending an excellent book—and do say why you liked it.



  1. Ann German
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    My recommendation: The Pest House by Jim Crace.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. That’s an all-time favorite novel for me next to Steven Millhauser’s “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954 By Jeffrey Cartwright.”

    If anyone is look for a good comic novel, I recommend “The Feud” by Thomas Berger. Also: “Neighbors” and “Being Invisible.”

    If anyone wants something of a Gothic nature, try “The Grotesque” by Patrick McGrath.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Complete Prose by Woody Allen is definitely worth getting your hands on if you like comic writing.

      • merilee
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        And David Sedaris, for some good laughs!

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          I love David Sedaris. His appearance on the Conan O’Brien podcast was heaven for me as a huge fan of both.

          …Might as well give a shout out to Conan’s podcast, which is a total joy for comedy nerds. Some stellar guests too.

  3. Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “…whiling away the viral hours…” is a lovely little phrase.

  4. Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jerry! I have to get those books.

    For anyone who wants pure escapism, I’ll once more recommend Shogun by James Clavell. I’m amazed how the hardcover version has retained its value. Please beware that the paperback version tends to fall apart, as it’s a thick tome, and all the handling and carrying about the house and in one’s bag speeds its disintegration.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I loved it when I read it right after publication (I was a teenager). Taipan is also excellent.

      • Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        I read this in my younger days too. The entire series is very good, including Whirlwind.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      .. speed, that is…

      • Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        I read Shogun when it came out, read it at my desk on lunch hour, read it in the car going home (I wasn’t driving!). Couldn’t read it at home as I had a husband and children desiring attention. One day, one of my co-workers came up to me, removed the book from my hands, flipped through it, put a bookmark in and told me, “Read the rest at home. You’ll cry.” I was so grateful for that, because when I got a couple pages beyond the bookmark, I cried. Damn! That was a good book. One of my all time favorites.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Since you raise James Clavell, I’d also recommend King Rat, a WWII novel set among the allied POWS in a Japanese prison camp in Singapore.

      And, speaking of WWII novels set in the Pacific theater, I’d also recommend James Dickey’s novel To the White Sea, the story of the long distance efforts to avoid capture by a tail-gunner forced to parachute from a burning bomber over Tokyo in the waning days of the War.

      • grasshopper
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        James Clavell endured the rigours of Changi Prison as a POW during WWII, and it always has amazed me that he could write of Japanese culture without disparagement or hate.

      • max blancke
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        To the White Sea was awfully grim, as I remember it.
        I have sort of been on a spree reading John N. Mclean’s (son of Norman) books about fires.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:04 am | Permalink

          Grim in parts, it is.

          But then Dickey’s other novel, Deliverance, isn’t exactly a lighthearted tale about canoeing, either. 🙂

        • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

          I will have to check out John McLean. I love A River Runs Through It (and the Redford film of it).

      • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Indeed, it’s superb, piercing.

      • Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I have read King Rat many years ago. Thanks for the recommendation of To the White Sea!

  5. tomh
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    If anyone is looking for good read in fiction, I heartily recommend Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. It’s a debut novel by a retired wildlife biologist whose only previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia, where she studied hyenas, lions and elephants.

    A true publishing phenomenon, Putnam thought so little of it that the original printing was 28,000 copies. To date it has spent nearly 2 years on the NYT best-seller list, mostly at #1, there have been 4 1/2 million copies sold, and foreign rights sold in 41 countries.

    It’s a story of a lonely girl coming of age in the marshes of N. Carolina, where she takes solace in the wildlife and natural wonder of the marshes. There’s mystery and a murder involved, all in all a really good yarn.

  6. Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I have been really needing distraction at this time; and I’ve gone back to read the Aubrey/Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian (again, is this the fourth time?).

    I still love every bit of it. What a story. What a writer.

    • John Dentinger
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      And of course, the series was made into the finest sailing movie ever, Master & Commander. With book and movie, no need to worry about ‘the lesser of two weevils,’ as either choice is a fine one.

      • Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, it’s been around 20 years since the film hasn’t? SO sad they never did more of them. Crowe and Bettany were amazing in the film.

        • Frank Bath
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          Oh I was going to recommend those wonderful historical novels! I read them in a rush back to back. Miraculously the film caught the feel of them exactly. Please watch it because it will send you straight to the books and a pleasure you wouldn’t have imagined. Clips on YouTube and the music too.

          • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            Yes, I’ve owned a copy of the DVD since its release. My son and I quote lines (sort of like people do with Monty Python film lines).

  7. Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a big science fiction fan, but The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, blew me away. The less said about the plot the better, but I recommend reading the reviews in Amazon, especially if you balk at the idea of a story whose main character is a Jesuit priest.

    As a former Jebbie, I was astounded at how accurately Russell captures the humor, disrespect for authority, and overall culture of the Jesuits, especially being a woman. There’s a sequel as well, but I’m getting ahead of my skis. The NY Times Book Review called it “A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction,” and it is all that and more.

    Would love to hear from someone else who has read it.

    • TJR
      Posted March 25, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, The Sparrow is excellent. I remember it being called Father Ted In Space, which it sort of is, and not just because of the popish element. Its funny and serious, and makes them work together. The sequel is nowhere near as good, but still worth a read.

  8. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    David Deutsch: The Beginning of Infinity

    Recently re-read this for the third time. I’ve never read a science book, or at least a physics book, that has as many fascinating ideas in a single chapter as this. He pushes things as much as he can, and some of it is very speculative, but it never veers too far into the wilds.

    Richmal Crompton: Just William

    Don’t know if these were ever sold in America but they’re wonderful children’s books that actually improve when you read them as an adult. Very dry humour, light, perfect for now.

    Behave: Robert Sapolsky

    Hugely moreish, fascinating tidbits of information every page, particularly interesting section on the emotional differences between the minds of teenagers and the rest of us.

    How Democracies Die: Lavitsky/Zablitt

    Every day this book becomes more frighteningly accurate. Most striking is the section where they identify what is, to them, the single biggest danger to America under Trump: the possibility of him weaponising a national emergency and using it to his own ends.

    So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

    He’s always pruriently amusing and this is no exception. Some outrageous stories in it.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I offer one American History book as I know many are not big readers of this subject or they get what they need from the internet. The book is the latest by Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue, The Founders And Us. Ellis is a specialist in the colonial period and adds a bit of current political divide with this one. Lots of information here on Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, George Washington and other important contributors. I promise you will learn much you did not know. You will also get the story on the second amendment you cannot get anywhere else. It is all packed into 239 pages.

  10. GBJames
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization by David Carrasco.

    I’m not sure it was the right choice during stressful times.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m going to look for City of Sacrifice Sounds fascinating. But for something apropos to the present situation, how about Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year? Or Pepys’ Plague Diary? Perfect reading during the lockdwown as our 21st century pandemic rages across the globe.

    • max blancke
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      I always keep a book in my truck just in case. The current book is “North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence” by Chacon and Mendoza.

      which I am enjoying.

      It might be that grim subject matter make current stresses seem comparatively trivial.

      • merilee
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        All my various Hondas, Civic, Odyssey, CRV, Element had a great pocket next to the driver’s seat for a nice plump book. My current Ford Escape,which is excellent in most ways, has a skinny pocket which hardly hold a map (not that we really need maps anymore…)

        • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          I still use maps! I prefer to know where I’m going. But I do indulge in my Garmin occasionally.

        • Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          Disaster planning experts recommend hard-copy maps of one’s own area and all surrounding areas, in case one has to flee and there’s no GPS gadget or no satellite signal anywhere.

          • merilee
            Posted March 25, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

            I actually do have maps of Canada and the US in my car.

  11. marou
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Native Son is a masterpiece. So is Stoner by John Williams. Trollope is worth a visit but the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel is truly outstanding.

  12. Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Not particularly uplifting, but I have always been fascinated by the rise of Nazism in the interwar years. Three fine current books I can recommend. The two volume biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, Ascent and Downfall. Downfall has just come out and not yet available in the US so I ordered it from the UK and devoured it. Ascent is actually more interesting for understanding Hitler. In Downfall, the war gets in the way, although I gained many insights into Hitler, in particular his fatal flaw that caused his downfall.

    I am now reading Hitler’s First Hundred Days by Peter Fritzsche, which is less about Hitler but about why the population embraced his message. One interesting fact when comparing Hitler to, say, Trump. The Nazi movement was a youth movement. The idealistic youth of Germany were Hitler’s main supporters. The reactionary old guard just thought they could use him to destroy the Social Democrats and Communists.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      For anyone who is interested in a good author who has the German take on Hitler, I recommend anything written by Sebastian Haffner. He was in exile in England and wrote a few books about Hitler. A view from within, as it were, from an astute person. He removed himself to England because his fiancèe and later wife was jewish. As I sadi, an astute fellow, and his views on German society at the time are very revieling.

      • Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes. His Defying Hitler is excellent.

    • David Harper
      Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      The British historian Richard Evans wrote a superb three-volume account of the rise of the Nazis: “The Coming of the Third Reich”, “The Third Reich in Power” and “The Third Reich at War”. Evans is a professor of modern European history and a subject expert on the Third Reich. He also writes very well, so these books are excellent for a general audience.

  13. Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Good recent reads:

    Race Against Time, by Jerry Mitchell, about prosecuting some of the civil rights crimes decades later. Good tale.

    John Adams, by David McCullough. It took me an age to get to this; but it was great. McCullough is a great writer.

    I can also heartily recommend his The Wright Brothers, The Great Bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge), and The Path Between the Seas (The Panama Canal).

    Its Head Came Off by Accident by Muffy Mead-Ferro

    War and Trupentine, by Stefan Hertmans. As you can see, I lean heavily to NF. I loved this novel.

    Churchill, Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts. Most excellent.

    One Way Ticket: Nine Lives on Two Wheels, by Jonathan Vaughters. Engaging memoir about a life in pro cycling.

    Limits of the Known, by David Roberts (who is most unfortunately very ill with cancer; but hanging in there). One of the best writers about adventure and the outdoors.

    Also his: The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest, In Search of the Old Ones, Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer, Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer, Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings, and The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion That Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest.

    OK, that’s more than enough.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Christ. I suspected I was lightly read but you just confirmed it.

      Now if there was a ‘videogames to play during confinement’ article I might be able to keep up.

      • Mark R.
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t played video games for years, but I have a friend who still plays. I actually called him for a recommendation the other night, but he only plays console games over the internet and I only have a PC. I don’t really want to go the console route. The last PC game I played iirc was one of the “Total War” series…I think Rome. It was cool.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          There’s a beautiful little platformer called ‘Ori And The Will O’ The Wisps’ that’s just come out. It’s so lush and rich and warm. Beautiful character design…I can’t recommend it highly enough.

          Also, it’s 2D so people who’re scared away by the complexity of 3D might find it amenable. It’s on PC. It’s also free on something called Game Pass, which is a Microsoft subscription service where you pay a monthly fee and get to download as many games as you want. I think you can find a ‘£1 for the first month’ deal somewhere.

          I don’t play strategy games much, but Game Pass is worth a look. It’ll almost certainly have something you’re interested in on it. (I don’t work for MS, it’s just an extremely good deal imo 🙂 )

          • Mark R.
            Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for the recommendation Saul, I’ll check it out. I just can’t bide all my time reading, working in the studio and watching tv…I think vids can round it out. We’re in it for the long haul I’m afraid. I just hope I don’t get too addicted…when I played internet console games 15 years ago or so, that’s pretty much all I did with my free time. I stopped because I started feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing anything productive; it wasn’t as hard to quit as cigarettes, but it wasn’t easy either. Playing with other people around the world online was such a fun and novel experience, it really got the blood pumping. ;).

            • Saul Sorrell-Till
              Posted March 25, 2020 at 9:28 am | Permalink

              You’re welcome, whatever it takes to get through this with sanity intact.

              I also remember that there’s a game called Outer Wilds(not Outer Worlds, which is different) free on Game Pass too. It’s scientifically extremely advanced, deals with quantum mechanics, gravity wells, Newton’s third law, etc – if you’re interested in space exploration and cosmology and weird science fiction it’s brilliant. Really, it’s unique; mind-expanding.

              I do think we gamers are perfectly adapted for this. The only things left after this is over will be cockroaches and gamers 🙂

      • TJR
        Posted March 25, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Try Terraforming Mars on steam.

        The original boardgame is an absolute classic, and although the computer implementation doesn’t have the expansions yet its still well worth a go now the glitches are cleared up.

  14. Tom Harrington
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    How about “Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk. A murder mystery but not a conventional one!

    To succumb to the apocalyptic, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.

    • merilee
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Will be reading Plow soon. Read and enjoyed her first one. The Olive Kitteredge books by elizabeth Strout, plus her first one, Amy and Isabelle.

    • merilee
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Will be reading Plow soon. Read and enjoyed her first one. The Olive Kitteredge books by elizabeth Strout, plus her first one, Amy and Isabelle.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      Various great books in Cormac MCarthy’s oeuvre, though it might not be a good idea to read them all in one go unless you have a strong stomach for violence!

      • merilee
        Posted March 25, 2020 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Not sure I have the stomach for Cormac McCarthy in these times…

    Posted March 24, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Definitely, Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”—but only in the original English translation. Six-hundred pages is a long read, and the first fifty pages or so are pretty tedious. But once Mann finds his groove, the comedy and pathos of the book predominate. Also, Gore Vidal’s, “Burr”. I remember reading a glowing review of this book in London’s old, “Encounter” magazine—the reviewer, though he signed his review as, “Anonymous”, had all the earmarks of a Hitchens’ piece. (Hitchens wrote extensively for, “Encounter” in the 70’s).

    • Eli Siegel
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      I think the Woods translation is better than that of Lowe-Porter.

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Before it [Native Son] was written in 1940, there was really no “Negro literature”, as Wright calls it in his postscript.

    Native Son was a milestone in “Negro literature” (so-called), but before him there were the “Harlem Renaissance” writers like Langston Hughes, who was known primarily for his poetry and plays, but also wrote the novel Not Without Laughter and the short story collection The Ways of White Folks, and like Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

    And before them there was the non-fiction writing of W.E.B. Du Bois, such as The Souls of Black Folk. And before any of them there were Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies.

  17. Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Now is the time for long reads – or even to sit back and have 136 different persons reading you the 135 chapters + epilogue of Moby Dick:

    (I may read chapter 30 myself)

    • merilee
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      What a great link. Thanks!
      I might need to get back into vol 1 of Caro’s massive series on LBJ, and maybe finally begin Finnegan’s Wake?

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        So you’ve polished off the complete “À la recherche du temps perdu,” eh? “Now on to Finnegan’s Wake”! If you want some “long reads” might I recommend St. Simon’s memoirs of the court of Louis XIV? I mean the whole thing in the original antique French, of course. I’ve read only excerpts, Bayle St. John’s delightfully eccentric 19th century English translation. It’s one of the nuttiest things I’ve read and I return to it time and time again.

        Or how about this, “Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays estranges,” Wikipedia calls it “a work of ethnographical, botanical and zoological exploration by Pierre Belon (1517–1564)” No English translation, unfortunately. I looked it up because I happened to be reading about lilacs (isn’t it just about “lilac time” in London?), learned that they’re from Turkey and first noted there by Belon. The book was described as an “incognito memoir,” by which I think that he posed as some kind of “native” to gain intimate access to the people and cultures he visited. Titania would not approve.

        • merilee
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

          Finished A la Recherche???? Hardly🙀 Bit by tiny bit. Also started a very stream-of-consciousness Booker finalist called Les Années. Glutton for punishment. And I finished last December’s Atlantic…
          Our lilac tree in Ontario has buds and bulbs are poking up…

        • merilee
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

          Finished A la Recherche???? Hardly🙀 Bit by tiny bit. Also started a very stream-of-consciousness Booker finalist called Les Années. Glutton for punishment. And I finished last December’s Atlantic…
          Our lilac tree in Ontario has buds and bulbs are poking up…

  18. Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m (re)reading Salman Rushdie’s brilliant Two Years Eight Months 28 Days. Great story about the world suddenly been turned upside down and people freaking out a great deal because they’re being attacked by genies from ancient Persian mythology and don’t understand why.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      That sounds wild, I like Rushdie, I’ll have to pick that up.

  19. darrelle
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t normally have thought to plug these books among this crowd, but Smokedpaprika recommending pure escapism and mirandaga recommending a science fiction story have inspired me.

    I recommend the Exordium series by Sherwood Smith & Dave Trowbridge, comprised of 5 books starting with The Phoenix In Flight. I have read a lot of science fiction of all subgenres in my life and this series is hands down, no contest, the finest example of Space Opera I’ve come across.

    It’s got everything. Epic scope, many interesting characters, philosophy of many sorts, politics, love, humor, action, strife, compassion, the expected and the unexpected, and more. And it is done so well. The story is long and complex in that there are many different story-lines and yet it rarely if ever seems cumbersome. It takes it’s time, as is necessary to weave such a complex and thorough story-verse as it does, yet is always interesting while doing so.

    Now, please keep in mind that there’s no accounting for taste, but I can’t recommend this story highly enough.

  20. William Stewart
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Dear Professor Coyne,
    You might be interested in two articles by Crews that appeared in the New York Review of books on September 29,2011 and October 11, 2011. In one of the articles Crews suggests that Freud’s emphasis on sexuality derived, in part,from what he experienced as the sexually stimulating effects of cocaine. Being naive, some years ago I asked a female friend (only a friend) what was so attractive about cocaine. Her answer? ” It makes you horny.”
    William Stewart

  21. Alan Jardine
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m re-reading Dawkins’s “The Greatest Show on Earth, in which “Why Evolution is True” by someone called Jerry Coyne gets an honourable mention.

    It’s excellent for its science – not just evolutionary biology but for other sciences and for his elegant and crystalline prose.

    I’ll probably move on to his “Climbing Mount Improbable” next.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Greatest Show is really good. Let me also recommend The Ancestor’s Tale. Hell, all of the rest are excellent, too.

      • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Yes, big plus on Ancestor’s Tale. Might be my favorite Dawkins book (I have them all).

        His recent 2-part autobiography is excellent.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I need to re-read that one myself, thanks for the reminder.

      • merilee
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Climbing Mount Improbable was really good.

        • Mark R.
          Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Darn, I just looked on my bookshelf and don’t have that one. Another for the “stack”.

  22. Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    For escapism among science-fiction readers, which are probably few and far between here, I recommend Altered Carbon, from Richard K. Morgan. this book has been filmed by Netflix in the last couple of years, with the usual loss of depth when books are filmed. the original book is a beautiful combination of dectective noire with steampunk and a visceral writing style. I am not easy to please, and though I love science-fiction I deplore the low niveau which is often present in that genre, but I must saya that this book made the cut for me.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      Asimov, Heinlein, other such masters of the golden age of science fiction. More recent female authors: Catherine Asaro, Kage Baker, Connie Willis. Harlan Ellison. Etc.

    • Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I agree on Altered Carbon and I am not a SF fan.

  23. Posted March 24, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I dislike very much the fact that one can not edit one’s posts. Normaly I do that before posting, but, being slightly drunk, I did not. Please forgive teh (that was intentional) mistakes in my previous post.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      No problem. I was too drunk to notice them.

  24. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Given that our topic is “books to read during confinement,” I’m gonna recommend a book that was written during confinement, No Beast So Fierce, a novel by Edward Bunker, written while he was an inmate in California’s San Quentin prison, about the (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts of a new parolee to go straight.

    The novel has long been a cult classic. Film fans may recognize Mr. Bunker as the fella who had a cameo as “Mr. Blue” in Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs.

    • mfdempsey1946
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      The film version, “Straight Time — starring Dustin Hoffman in what may be his finest performance, directed by Ulu Grosbard, and also featuring Harry Dean Stanton and Theresa Russell — has a screenplay by Edward Bunker and others.

      It’s an unsung but unfailingly vivid and unsparing examination of criminal pathology.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        Yes it is; I’ve seen it. There’s also a film version (with a screenplay co-written by him) of another Bunker prison novel, Animal Factory.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        There was also a very nice turn in Straight Time by the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh.

        I think Roger Ebert used to have something called the Stanton-Walsh rule: any movie with either M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton can’t be all bad — making Straight Time doubly un-bad. 🙂

  25. Debra Coplan
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I just finished The Age of Living Machines by Susan Hockfield.
    The book highlights scientists and engineers who have combined biology with technology discovering incredible innovations…
    innovations such as cancer fighting nanoparticles, and virus enabled batteries.

    I’m not a scientist so some was a little above my comprehension, but I found it fascinating.

  26. Cameron Peters
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Social Democratic Capitalism by Lane Kenworthy. I wanted an evidence-base examination of why this system does the most to promote human well being.

    The Art of the Con by Anthony Amore. As I’ve been watching the BBC series Lovejoy, it piqued my interest in the “most notorious fakes, frauds, and forgeries in the art world.”

    The historical fiction of Steven Saylor. His long running series focused on Gordianus the Finder combines the history of Rome (From Sulla to Caesar) with mystery and intrigue. The first novel (by publication date) is Roman Blood.

  27. drosophilist
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I recommend A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. It’s a slim book written as a letter to the author’s teenage daughter in the soul-crushing aftermath of the 2016 election. Adam Gopnik beautifully describes liberalism, why it matters, and why it has been hated by both the left and the right.

    A quote from the book, where Gopnik compares liberalism to a rhinoceros, in contrast with Utopian ideologies, symbolized by unicorns:

    “The ideal of the unicorn is derived from the fact of the rhinoceros… People idealize unicorns and imagine unicorns and make icons out of unicorns and write fables about unicorns… The only trouble with them is that they do not exist. They never have. The rhino is ungainly and ugly and short-legged and imperfect and squat. But the rhinoceros is real. It exists. And it is formidable.”

    A beautiful, uplifting, inspiring book. Highly recommended.

  28. Liz
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I am currently reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. It’s a novel for a book group. I’m near the beginning still and it’s very good so far.

  29. Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Anything by:

    Neil Shubin

    Frans de Waal

    Any of the Kroebers: Alfred, Theodora, Ursula

    Anything about Native American Mound Builders and the structures they built: for example, Cahokia, Poverty Point, etc.

    Anything about Native American civilizations and structures built by Native Americans in the Southwest such as Cahokia, Mesa Verde, Walnut Canyon, Acoma, etc.

  30. Roo
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    To add some WV love to the list, I recommend Storming Heaven and October Sky. I also think anything by Steinbeck has the right tone for times like these (times are hard but we shall prevail…).

    For super light reading, I think it would be fun to go back and find a book that absolutely enchanted you as a child and read it now as an adult. Maybe not something like Captain Underpants, ha ha, but something like My Side of the Mountain.

  31. Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Any book about Koko.

    Anything by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins

    Any books about Native American civilization

    • Posted March 25, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I can highly recommend the following:

      Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, by Elizabeth A. Fenn

      500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians, by Alvin Josephy

      Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, by Anton Treuer (White Earth Ojibwe Nation)

      By David Roberts:
      Escalante’s Dream: On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest

      • Posted March 25, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Hit the wrong button …

        Also by David Roberts:

        Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars
        In Search of the Old Ones
        The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest

      • Posted March 25, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink


        Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest in Pursuit of Coronado, by Douglas Preston

  32. Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Anything by Shakespeare

    Anything by Mark Twain

    The works of Joel Chandler Harris who wrote about Br’er Bear, Br’er For, Br’er Rabbit, etc. These can be found on Gutenberg.

    Mythologies of the world, not only Greek and Roman.

    Reread some of the children’s stories that now are considered racist to see what you think of them now.

    Histories of the world from a non-Eurocentric purview: Chinese, Middle Eastern, Genghis Khan, etc.

    • max blancke
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      If you have not yet listened to the “Hardcore History” podcast, you probably should. There are hours and hours about the Khans.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 24, 2020 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        Hardcore History is a most excellent podcast.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        Dan Carlin’s podcast series on World War One, “Blueprint for Armageddon” blew me away.

  33. grasshopper
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    When I became a working man with an income, I used to purchase books by calculating how many pages I would get for a dollar, and go for those which gave the longest reading time. I made an exception for the very popular ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’, and thought I should read it, but I can’t now remember any part of it other than the title.

    I discovered ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ by John Barth using this method. I think it is a great read.
    Wikipedia describes it thus

    A satirical epic set in the 1680s–90s in London and colonial Maryland, the novel tells of a fictionalized Ebenezer Cooke, who is given the title “Poet Laureate of Maryland” by Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore and commissioned to write a Marylandiad to sing the praises of the colony. He undergoes adventures on his journey to and within Maryland while striving to preserve his virginity. The complicated Tom Jones-like plot is interwoven with numerous digressions and stories-within-stories, and is written in a style patterned on the writing of 18th-century novelists such as Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett.

    It can be downloaded as a pdf from

    For humour and light farce I am reading my way through P. G. Wodehouse’s “Blandings Castle” series, which elicits the odd audible chuckle from me. His works are available online at project gutenburg, or

    • merilee
      Posted March 24, 2020 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      Loved Sot-Weed Factor! Really anything by Barth. Need to go back to him.

    • Posted March 24, 2020 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Pages per dollar!? Well, you could read the Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room, if that was your criterion. 😀

      • grasshopper
        Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:46 pm | Permalink


    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      I found the Sot-Weed Factor in a youth hostel in Athens when travelling in my youth and absolutely loved it. A wonderful book.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. His earlier novel The End of the Road is much less metafictional, but also excellent.

  34. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    E Annie Proulx is an excellent writer. Shipping News and Post-Cards are both excellent. Also her short stories.

  35. David Harper
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve noted all of the wonderful suggestions so far. As a devoted bibliophile, I thank you all. I’m going to suggest the “Rivers of London” series of novels by Ben Aaronovitch. They follow the adventures of a young London police constable who discovers not only that magic is real, but that the Metropolitan Police has a unit devoted to combatting magical crime. Don’t imagine that they are simply “Harry Potter in a copper’s uniform”. They aren’t kids’ books, for a start. They are in the police procedural genre, I guess, but with a generous helping of dry British humour as well as tragedy and drama. There are currently eight stories in the series.

  36. TJR
    Posted March 25, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just got back into my rereading Pratchett campaign.

    First in the queue turned out to be Interesting Times. How apt.

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