Reading in the Face of Death—Book Suggestions for Self-Isolation

Too many books, not enough time—it’s the eternal struggle of the book lover. Unfortunately, nature and society have conspired to ensure we all shelter in place, self-quarantine, isolate, and otherwise hunker down in our homes for the next few weeks, lest we quite literally die. For devout readers it’s a nightmare come true. For once it’s perfectly acceptable to retreat from social obligations and dive into a book rather than go out dining, drinking, and dancing. Book lovers unite! Or better yet, don’t.


Meanwhile…looking for suggestions on what to read next? I’ve asked several Chicago (and Chicago adjacent) writers to share what they’re currently perusing. Find one and order a copy from your local bookstores or download it directly from the publishers. Then lock the doors, close the windows, burrow into your favorite chair, and start reading. Think of it as literary suspended animation until things get better.

And they will get better.

Dan Kelly Third Coast Review Lit Editor


Even before my 70-hour work weeks became 15-hour weeks with the shuttering of my music venue, I set up a 2020 reading regimen so ridiculous that sharing it splits the difference between a boast and a plea for help.

The two “real” books I just finished are Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film, edited by Ally Field and Marsha Gordon, and Wanda Jackson’s autobiography, Every Night is Saturday Night. The former is surprisingly accessible and engrossing for an academic book. I got it because my historic wife wrote the foreword, but actually read it because each brisk essay—about the production and exhibition of educational, amateur, faith-based, industry, and government films that address race issues—tells me something new. I loved learning about lefty African-American film editor Hortense Beveridge (with a cameo by Paul Robeson in a Santa suit at an American Labor Party holiday shindig), and the piece about America’s perception of Day of the Dead via film culture had me bugging every housebound soul around me with my new nuggets of info. As for the latter, like most musician (or athlete, or actor) biographies, Jackson’s is read to gain insight into an artist in spite of the self-imposed filters and literary shortcomings. This book definitely enhanced my enjoyment of one of the most dynamic American performer’s catalogue.

The less real books I’m reading involve an attack on my bulging bookshelves. I own a complete set of dog-eared editions of every MAD paperback (one copy of each book, not the dozens of cover variations that a deeper MAD-head would covet). Between 1954 and 1993 MAD Magazine worked with publishers to release about 250 pocket paperbacks, 93 of which were eye-straining reprint compilations, with the rest featuring original material, or books by individual MAD artists compiling new or previously published work.

I’ve been reading one or two of these a day all year. It is a stupid thing to do, as MAD revels in hack-ish, Vaudeville-era expiration date humor, and elbow-in-the-ribs pseudo-Yiddish wordplay. But the artwork by Al Jaffee (who turned 99 under quarantine this week), Jack Davis, Sergio Aragones, and a dozen other genuine geniuses (80s-era Paul Peter Porges’ illustrations knock me silly) make the worst jokes worth it. And on the none-too-infrequent occasions when something is actually funny the yucks are more intense after being primed by puerile punnery. I’m saving my last Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions tome for the grand finale.

Jake Austen runs the Promontory music venue  in Hyde Park, is the voice of Chic-a-Go-Go’s Ratso, and has written a bunch of books.


I started reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez before my social distancing began. It's a fascinating book about the negative impacts of datasets that only represent (or overrepresent) men. That may not sound like a fun topic, but it's cheery compared to pandemic updates!

For folks who prefer fiction, I've been thinking a lot about The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. In this science fiction novella from 1907, humans are isolated from each other. Because it’s not safe to go outside, people communicate via video chats and have their worldly needs delivered. Um...I guess I'm not good at "reading as escapism." 

Kim Z. Dale is a Chicago-based writer of plays, essays, and short fiction. Examples of her work and updates about current projects can be found at

        So, I’m really missing people, already. My people, of course—the ones I won’t be able to hug again for who knows how long—but also just…people. All the ordinary strangers you see and interact with on an ordinary day. Which is probably part of the reason why, of all the unread books in the guilty pile in my apartment, I’ve picked up Gene Weingarten’s most recent book, One Day. It tells the story of a single day, Dec. 26, 1986, in close and loving detail, hour by hour, human by human. Weingarten, one of the best magazine writers alive, does his thing, and the unremarkable becomes remarkable. Ordinary people and places—Falls City, Nebraska; Winslow, Indiana; Flagstaff, Arizona—turn out to be not so ordinary when he tells the story, but the book is also full of the details of normal life, and is full of people as well. Right now, amid the various onrushing horrors and the news that’s moving way too fast, this book is helping to slow my heart rate a little. Lydialyle Gibson is a writer. Follow her on Twitter here.      

Some people hoard toilet tissue, loaves of bread, or Cool Ranch Doritos in a crisis. I hoard books.

After stopping by the drugstore and supermarket this weekend, I had one last stop to complete my essential purchases: the bookstore. Unabridged Books, which is still among many local bookstores selling books for delivery or pick-up, FYI!

Just as we must now show solidarity by being apart, I’ve found myself pulled between paradoxical extremes in my reading. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, and Stateway’s Garden, the debut fiction collection from Chicago writer Jasmon Drain, share stories of young people trying to survive within broken and evil institutions.

I’ve also found myself drifting to writing with an almost weightless lyricism. I’ve dived back into an old used bookstore find by the Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows. He talks about the beauty of the traditional Japanese home and, in a particular, the joys of a good bathroom where the “toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the songs of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of seasons.” An oddly lovely image to keep in mind as most Chicagoans glimpse spring slowly arriving from a seat, toilet or otherwise, in their apartment.

Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content.


I’ve always been a hoarder. No, not like the nitwits who created the same shortages they feared by buying up TP and disinfectant—may all their booty be plundered by attorneys general and distributed to folks who need them. No, I’m a book hoarder. Specifically ones covering my favorite topics (comics, horror, music, architecture, and more) and the works of my favorite authors. I’m not alone. Like many others, when they announced that Americans needed to withdraw to their homes and self-isolate, I thought, “THIS IS YOUR MOMENT, MR. DAN KELLY.” A entire library of my favorite things beckoned.

Regarding my favorite authors, perhaps Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Nathanael West, and Flannery O’Connor aren’t the lightest or cheeriest of authors for a pandemic year. But revisiting their stories always brings me back to the first time I devoured their work and the bizarre sense of contentment it gave me. As for my favorite topics, I think I’ll catch up on a few scholarly texts on horror cinema I’ve been meaning to finish. Such as Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, covering the appearance of masks in horror films, or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, a 752-page monster filled with idiosyncratic essays covering every last inch of the film.

Finally, I’ll round it out with the three Kitchen Sink Press editions of full-color Spirit comics I picked up at C2E2 a month back. Released in the early 80s, they collect several of the noirish adventures of cartoonist Will Eisner’s famous masked mystery man, the titular Spirit. Eisner was a true master of the form, every panel demonstrating his dynamism, humor, and inventiveness. I could use the distraction.

Follow Dan Kelly on Twitter or listen to his podcast.  

I just finished Severance by Ling Ma. I did not do this on purpose. It was excellent, but I don't know if I can recommend it, unless deep diving into what's going on helps you process it. Right now I’m in the middle of Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, a thriller set in remote Russia. It's also excellent, but not a happy book. I probably should read something more cheerful next. I've been eyeing Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl or Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, a graphic novel I picked up when I was a teenager and never finished.

Let's be real, I'm probably going to read another stone-cold bummer. But definitely something less related to disease. 

Rosamund Lannin's site may be found here.


I've been listening—a little bit at a time—to the audiobook of Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, delighted by the humor, profound observations, and sheer strangeness of his writing. I read this collection years ago and I still have that physical copy of the book. But hearing it (performed by Dennis Holland in the Audible edition) feels like a new experience. Sometimes it's harder to keep track of what's happening in Barthelme's fractured, playful narratives, making the audiobook a bit like a crossword puzzle for the ears. But I don't worry too much about getting lost. Before long, Barthelme's words will grab me again. I just reached the passage in "City Life" where a character describes what a city is like: "I have to admit we are locked in the most exquisite mysterious muck. This muck heaves and palpitates. It is multitudinous and has a mayor." This was probably intended as a satire of other writings about cities, but its weird poetry rings true.

Robert Loerzel is a Chicagoan, journalist, photographer, author, copy editor, and flâneur.


My quarantine bunker is stocked with unread books, and I'm getting ready to hunker down with Circe, which from what I've heard sounds like it will be an enjoyable read. Now is probably not the time for serious or depressing literature. I'm a big fan of fantasy fiction so if anyone is looking for an escape I would highly recommend The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. That's some immersive storytelling to take you out of reality for a bit. Or I'm thinking it might be a good time to reread Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which is a thoughtful look at human resilience and the power of art.

Follow Tamara Matthews on Twitter.


I just finished reading The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. It's new and I wanted anything that wasn't pandemic-related. I was immediately transported to 1950s India. Everything from the scenery to the cultural norms of that time and place surrounds the reader. It's rare that a historical fiction novel captures all of that so effortlessly. I read it in two long binge sessions. Highly recommend.

Find Jennifer Naughton's site at WindyCityReader.Com.


Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning by John W. Reps, published in 1979 by Princeton University Press, is not only long but also extremely dorky. It clocks in at 827 pages, but 133 pages are ancillary sections, such as notes and bibliography. Many of the 694 pages of Reps' text are covered in full or in part with the early street plans and bird's eye views of hundreds of western settlements, towns, and cities, but at least two-thirds of the pages are taken up with an extremely detailed account of the planning steps taken to get these various municipalities started. It's a book for urban history geeks who can wallow in such esoteric concerns as its exquisitely refined analysis of one street grid pattern versus another.

Patrick T. Reardon is a Third Coast Review reviewer, Chicago historian, essayist, poet, and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).


I’m in the middle of Lame Fate/Ugly Swans by the Russian sci-fi writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Lame Fate is (so far) the story of a disillusioned Soviet writer struggling with midlife and bureaucracy, while Ugly Swans is an embedded novel-within-the-novel about…well, a different disillusioned Soviet writer struggling with midlife and bureaucracy, but this time there are strange people called “clammies” who care only about the future, somehow cause it to rain incessantly, and turn children into hyper-literate prodigies who treat their elders with pitying condescension. It’s good COVID-19 reading because it captures so many of this moment’s mixed feelings: paralyzing dread mixed with the wild off-chance hope of social transformation, personal guilt mixed with rage at the powers that be, resentment of older generations mixed with terrible concern for them. Because it’s not actually a plague novel, though, it doesn’t feel too on-the-nose to provide some much-needed escapism. Lame Fate/Ugly Swans will appear in its first complete English edition this June, from Chicago Review Press, and Maya Vinokour’s translation is excellent.

Jesse Raber teaches English at UIC and is working on a literary history of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @jraber.


I was about 40,000 words deep on a book that I’m writing about New York’s hotel workers unions, covering the period of 1912–1952, when we all went on lockdown. King Lear this is not, and the problem for me is not that I have “time enough at last” but that I don’t have access to the physical union archives I need to research the next few chapters.

So, I’m reading a lot of the books I’ve been sitting on for research purposes. These include Thomas Kessner’s voluminous biography of Fiorello LaGuardia; Adam Hoschchild’s new biography of the “millionaire socialist” Rose Pastor Stokes (who, among other feats, organized a 1912 strike of the hotel waiters and cooks); and Robert Caro’s Working, about how he does the work of historical research and writing.

Also, I’m a New Yorker so I can’t speak to what online resources the Chicago libraries have online, but I’ve been impressed by how many historical newspapers at the New York Public Library are word-searchable online with a library card. Want some perspective? See how the Atlanta Constitution, Baltimore Sun, or the New York Herald covered the Spanish Flu in 1918–1919, or just search for the words “canceled” and “postponed.”

Shaun Richman is the author of Tell the Bosses We're Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review, May).


I’m gravitating toward all my happy places from a simpler, non-pandemic time right now, including the The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. After being purchased for, and ignored by, my daughter, it made its way into my permanent collection about 10 years ago. I’m finding this book perfect for tiny escapes away from the news. There are entire chapters devoted to “Fantasyland” and “Weird and Wacky”, as well as enough Walt Kelly in this book to blot out any worst-case scenarios my brain generates.

Should you crave to know more about Jackie Wolk, she can be found here.


When the social distancing began I was already a third of the way through We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Chicago author, Samantha Irby. Is it a great book? Yes. Is the title a little on the nose at the moment? Also, yes. Though we have indeed never met, I used to see Irby IRL on the regs back when she was consistently performing at (and I was consistently attending) Write Club at the Hideout. Always loved her writing/voice and have been meaning to read her books for a while. Her second book, Meaty, is already waiting on my bookshelf. I’m reading them in order, because Type A.

I give We Are Never Meeting in Real Life a big recommendation whether you’re stuck at home because of a pandemic or social anxiety, or both. It is a collection of humorous, memoir-y essays, so it provides many much-needed laughs and it’s easy to pick up and put down if Irby’s neuroses are too much for your own to handle given the current world situation.

For what it’s worth, Irby’s new book, Wow, No Thank You, is coming out later this month and she had to cancel her book tour (duh) so, maybe pre-order it and help a local author out.

Natalie Younger’s Shared History is a history-comedy podcast that focuses on topics overlooked or underrepresented in history curricula.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.