Here’s a lesson I truly never thought I’d live to learn: pandemics are great for reading. That is, if you can take your eyes off the news (and your brain off your worries) for long enough. A good read, especially before bed, is transporting and soothing (and it can help you sleep better). It doesn’t have to be a dense literary tome, either (although those are great). It can be a poem or a short story, or a cookbook filled with recipes you’ve been meaning to take a crack at for years.
I asked a bunch of readers, writers and Broadsheet staff what they’re reading for comfort right now. You know – the literary equivalent of comfort eating. The responses are diverse, entertaining and unexpected. There are complex mains that’ll take a while to digest, a couple of childhood treats, and some quick snacks you can grab on the go. Bon appétit.
Benjamin Law – journalist, broadcaster, playwright
Given all of us – and most of the planet – has seemingly lost control, one thing I’m finding comforting is making lists. Shopping lists. Shit I need to do in order to help family and friends. Stuff I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to. And one of the lists in which I’ve been finding comfort is making a coronavirus reading list – or as I’ve dubbed it on social media, the #CoronavirusReadingStack. It’s basically books I want to read over the coming months. I’m probably reading close to 100 articles about coronavirus every day, and while I think it’s important to keep up-to-date with reputable news and information, we also need to step back from it to prevent our brains unravelling. Right now I’m finishing off the brilliant and bruising Shuggie Bain by Scottish author Douglas Stuart and hopping onto Heather Rose’s Bruny next. And hey, if your brain can’t handle reading right now, even scrolling through everyone else’s #CoronavirusReadingStack is kind of calming.
Nick Connellan – publications director at Broadsheet
Neal Stephenson, who once worked for Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company Blue Origin, is the smartest author I’ve read, rivalled only by David Foster Wallace. His works of speculative fiction are labyrinthine in every way, from the cutting-edge scientific theories they’re built on, to the grandiose worlds they describe. These are not books you can read idly, while your mind wanders elsewhere – a handy quality in times like these. I struggle to keep up with all the maths and theoretical physics, but Stephenson’s engrossing plots and vivid prose are more than enough to keep me hooked. I just finished Anathem. Set at a separatist monastery on an Earth-like world, the novel starts slowly and pummels you with fictional jargon, but fires up quickly once the young protagonist discovers an alien spacecraft in orbit, mysteriously observing the planet’s surface. (I also recommend Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a maths-heavy exploration of cryptographic techniques set largely during World War II.)
Yvette Coppersmith – artist and Archibald Prize winner
I borrowed a book on the brink of #iso – A House of My Own: Stories From My Life by the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros. I was looking for life affirmation, as a woman who has crafted a life of creative isolation. Included is an essay called “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work”. After the initial days of anxiety wore off, I realise this is what I have been good at too. This is a privilege in the context of women’s lives throughout art history, and it’s so apt for making the most of 2020.
Elizabeth Flux – editor and Broadsheet contributor
When everything around me is a little bit too busy and noisy, there are two kinds of books I retreat to: those I’ve already read, or short story collections. This week I’ve been reading Shirl by Victorian writer Wayne Marshall. It’s a new collection of surreal, satirical stories that I was lucky enough to read an early draft of, as part of the VPLA Unpublished Manuscript Awards. It’s about Australian life – kind of. There’s the one about Bruce, the shark who lives in the local swimming pool. And there’s the darkly funny and prescient story One Year Without Footy. At a time when I’m struggling to concentrate, it’s great having a truly original and absorbing book that you can dive in and out of, like a shark-infested swimming pool.
Elissa Goldstein – subeditor at Broadsheet
These days, I find myself reaching for books that are either short, or childhood favourites. The former give me joyful pings of accomplishment, and they aren’t daunting (unlike, gosh, pretty much everything else in the world right now). I’m savouring Less by Andrew Sean Greer (like, literally rationing out the pages so I don’t finish it too soon), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018. It’s a delight, full of jokes about the literary world and sneakily poignant moments that make you LOL and weep at the same time. The childhood faves are all about nostalgia: I’m working my way through the Anne of Green Gables and All-of-a-Kind Family series, which are both timeless and exquisitely well-written, but not without a ton of real-world hardship (and, trigger warning, life-threatening fevers).
Annie Toller – subeditor at Broadsheet
I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, an account of five catastrophes that took place over 100 years, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Briefer sections on a Chicago heatwave and a smallpox epidemic in New York feel particularly salient just now.) This may not sound particularly comforting, but bear with me. Solnit’s contention, borne out by reams of evidence from disaster studies, is that the vast majority of people respond to crises not with selfishness and panic, but with purpose, imagination and altruism. They come together to find ways of caring for their neighbours – whether through community kitchens, shared housing or mutual-aid networks. We’ve seen it here recently, in the wake of last summer’s bushfires, and we’re seeing it again in the coronavirus pandemic. There’s hope in catastrophes, according to Solnit. As the day-to-day social fabric unravels, we catch a glimpse of what another world might look like.
Hayley Magnus – actor
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. (Jokes.) I find great comfort in reading animal facts. It’s a really rubbish time for humans, but finding out that Caribbean sperm whales have their own regional accent and male ring-tailed lemurs will “stink fight” by wafting their scent at each other really lightens the mood. I like being reminded of the mastery and the mystery in another species. I would also recommend Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is about a woman who attempts to sleep for a year. It’s not a super sunny read but I really relate to wishing this time to be over.
Callum McDermott – directory editor at Broadsheet
I’m reading After the Quake by Haruki Murakami, a collection of short stories set in Japan around the time of the 1995 Kobe earthquake – basically Murakami taking the pulse of the national consciousness via magical realism. It’s interesting to read disaster fiction set after an enormous cataclysm when you’re also living through a disaster of sorts yourself. It’s bringing me a weird sense of comfort. I’m scratching the itch for apocalyptic fiction without making myself feel really sad. It suits my mood, it’s readable, and you can easily knock a story out before bed.
I’ve been re-reading poems that make me feel like the world is still here, even though over the last few weeks it feels like everything has disappeared. I have Anne Carson’s collection of chapbooks, Float, next to my bed, and on the fridge I’ve stuck up her piece Candor, because it’s instructive in a way I need at the moment. I’ve also been visiting the Poetry Foundation website and picking a theme. Recently I have been clicking on Nature, Birth and Living, so I must be hoping for something budding rather than something tired. Maybe I’m avoiding endings, given the large ones looming over us all right now.
Jenni Kauppi – subeditor at Broadsheet
I’m in lockdown with a four-year-old, and it’s actually kind of nice to be occasionally immersed in her world rather than the real one. We’re reading Fairy Tales for Feisty Girls by Aussie author Susannah McFarlane, which rewrites the classics with girls using brains and determination to rescue themselves. Spoiler alert – Rapunzel sensibly chops her locks and uses her braid to zip-line down from her tower, and savvy Cinderella cashes in her expensive glass slipper to buy a rural property on which to care for injured animals. The girl-empowered book genre has exploded in the last few years, and I’m so here for it.
Bram Presser – author of The Book of Dirt
Times like this call for a book that will send your mind into joyful, absurd acrobatics, and for me the best bet is John Wray’s spectacular novel, The Lost Time Accidents. An oft-overlooked masterpiece, it draws on everything from pickles to religious cults to the theory of relativity and time travel, all wrapped up in an engrossing multi-generational family saga. A narrative and intellectual supernova.
Emily Taliangis – audience editor at Broadsheet
For more than half my life, a big, colourful stack of Jacqueline Wilson books – every one she’s ever written – has accompanied me across houses, states and territories. The themes she explores aren’t exactly light, but reading her young adult fiction makes me feel 11 years old again. My favourite is The Illustrated Mum. A few pages are missing entirely (lost somewhere between Adelaide and Darwin), but that’s not a problem because I know them by heart. I recently started reading it again, and it’s been nice to have moments of feeling like an 11-year-old in this strange, adult-y time. Dolphin, the protagonist, has an extraordinary imagination, and I’m particularly inspired by it this time round as I look for ways to take my mind off things. Nick Sharratt’s illustrations at the start of each chapter have also inspired me to draw again – something I’ve not done properly since school. I might re-read The Story of Tracy Beaker next, so I can hold onto that blissful childhood ignorance for just a little longer (and let Tracy’s challenges put things into perspective for me).
Che-Marie Trigg – assistant Sydney editor at Broadsheet
When leaving the house is a no-no and seeing friends is the same, I’m firing up my imagination with Jane Austen. It doesn’t look like I’ll be leaving Sydney’s inner west to wander the English countryside with dashing gentlemen like Mr Darcy any time soon, so re-reading Austen – including Pride and Prejudice, of course – is the next best thing. How comforting to immerse myself in a world where the only problems are sprained ankles and whether that guy will make for a suitable marriage.
I’m reading Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a slim collection of essays and reflections that all my writer-mother friends have raved about for years. Galchen wrote it while under the time-warping rule of her newborn daughter, whom she calls “the puma”. Corona-time is both gaping and in short supply. How to meaningfully shape it? How to not get lost inside it? Little Labors offers a solution to the problem of time that mothers of newborns know well: work in bursts, keep it small, and accept deviations in attention and flow.
The other book I just started is Jenn Shapland’s incredible My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. This is a work of lesbian recovery, of literary biography and of breathtaking queer autobiography by an exceptional debut author. Shapland goes looking not for “evidence” of McCullers’s lesbianism so much as she is traces its denial, its suppressions: she charts the violence of collective, straight remembering. She writes: “There are so many crushes in a lifetime. So many friendships that mix desiring to have with wanting to be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer.” This book’s response to time is to resist its normalizing impulses, and to say: this is not ordinary.
Alice Zaslavsky – author, food writer and media presenter
I’m in the throes of finishing my next book at the moment, which has been interesting, as you can imagine, since it’s pretty hard for creative juices to flow when your lizard brain’s working overtime. I’ve escaped to cookbooks (the kind where every dish description is more like a mini autobiographical tidbit) and toddler manuals occasionally, or flicked through Womankind and New Philosopher magazines absentmindedly. I’ve got a novel staring at me from the shelf that I’m going to reward myself with when the manuscript’s polished off – The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili. I’m gonna run a bath, go heavy on the lavender oil, crack open the tome, and wake up when the water’s cold.
Max Veenhuyzen – food writer and Broadsheet contributor
My girlfriend Jess and I are reacquainting ourselves with a bunch of cookbooks – specifically the Thai section of our collection. While there’s a practical element to this – in the last week, we’ve eaten home-cooked khao soi, khanom jim nahm ngiaw and northern-Thai-style grilled spare ribs – there’s also an element of escapism, as we’re both mildly obsessed with Thai cooking and Thailand. (Jess lived in Bangkok for two years.) There’s also a personal connection: the authors of two of the books we’re digesting – Austin Bush (The Food of Northern Thailand) and Andy Ricker (Pok Pok: Noodles – are friends, so cooking their recipes and sharing them via social media is, in a roundabout way, helping all of us stay connected.
And two non-book bonuses, if you can’t stomach a whole book right now:
Ellen Fraser – Melbourne editor at Broadsheet
To get myself out of the coronavirus news-reading cycle, where I can get stuck switching frantically between apps for the latest grim updates, I’ve been visiting this Instagram page devoted entirely to frogs. It’s like a form of meditation. No current events, no news, no stats or graphs. It’s just all frogs, all the time. And technically there is a little reading involved. Some are accompanied by a descriptive caption, such “soft and milky” or “shy lemon boy” or “small bean friend”. I can’t get enough. Highly recommend.
Sarah Norris – Sydney editor at Broadsheet
I’m finding solace by enthusiastically scrolling the extensive back catalogue of New Yorker cartoons on Instagram. There’s this fabulous old favourite (the dog’s tear gets me every time), and this one that aptly captures the state of the world. Good, clever fun we can all do with more of right now.