Speaking personally, the current situation is somewhat akin to when I lived in eastern Ukraine in the early 1990s. Sources of entertainment were scarce for me in the pre-World Wide Web days. My command of Russian was not great, and what was on television back then consisted mostly of Mexican telenovelas dubbed into Russian. The only English-language entertainment available to me was BBC Radio.
That left me with the books I had brought. Big books that I knew I was supposed to read but had been too intimidated to start. Had I not been entertainment-constrained, I might otherwise never have cracked any of them open. I am a better person for doing so.
Thucydides, “The History of the Peloponnesian War.” No big whoop, just the urtext from which both the disciplines of history and international relations emerged. This is an intimidating text, and the Landmark edition has the advantage of adding maps that clarify Thucydides’s descriptions of battles and conferences. Those are the parts to read quickly. The parts to savor, however, are everything else: Thucydides’s re-creation of pivotal speeches, his explanations for the cause of the war, his description of how the plague affected Athens and, most important, the slow, methodical, unrelenting effects of war on all of Greek society.
Adam Tooze, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.” The best single volume to explain not just what happened in 2008 but what happened afterward. Tooze has a much more pessimistic take than I do on the system’s response to the Great Recession. But I enjoyed disagreeing with “Crashed” as I was reading it. Tooze draws a direct line between what happened in 2008 and what happened in 2016. One wonders who will write the equivalent book of the current crisis a decade from now.
Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States.” Single-volume histories of the United States are rare these days. Popular historians write tomes about great Americans, and professional historians write about the country’s myriad flaws. What is impressive about Lepore’s narrative is how effortlessly she weaves both strands into a single compelling narrative. I finished this book with a more clear-eyed and yet more hopeful view of the United States.
Chuck Wendig, “Wanderers.” An epic work of popular fiction about, well, a global pandemic. You should not read this book if you are already freaked out about the current unpleasantness. If you are leaning into the pandemic genre, however, this book is absorbing. Wendig does an excellent job with misdirection. Without revealing any spoilers, what you might think is the source of the pandemic at the start of the book is very different from what you think at the end. The most riveting passages are in the book’s second half, once the pandemic has begun to affect society in a serious way.