A social distancing reading list, selected by the Brandeis community

Eight book covers

Have you had more than your fill of screen time while social distancing or quarantining? We’ve got some alternative options for you.

We asked Brandeis faculty, staff, students and alumni for social distancing reading recommendations. The picks could be relevant to the current situation, or just a good book. Here’s what they had to offer:

From faculty:

I’m reading a new book about a beautiful and talented young girl struggling to survive in Nazi occupied Holland, but not the girl you’re thinking of. In “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” Robert Matzen draws on heretofore unexplored primary documents to cut through the fog of misinformation about Hepburn’s early years and tell a gripping story of the traumatic wartime experience of the incandescent actress and tireless advocate for children’s rights. Anyone who knows Audrey Hepburn only as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” will find her personal backstory a revelation. — Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies

“Red Notice” by Bill Browder. A beyond fascinating high-finance thriller that describes how Bill Browder's hedge fund became the tale behind the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Brenda Anderson, senior lecturer in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the Brandeis International Business School

 “Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe and “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith — John Plotz, professor of English. Along with anthropology professor Elizabeth Ferry. Plotz hosts the podcast, “Recall this Book.” They have begun a series onBooks in Dark Times.” Listen to the most recent episode, featuring professor of the practice and novelist Stephen McCauley.

“Pieces of Light” by Charles Fernyhough. This engagingly written book takes readers on a tour of how our memory works and how important stories and storytelling are to our identity and community. It engages with modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience but is easy for any reader to understand. 

“The Naked Sun” by Isaac Asimov. This science fiction novel is also a detective mystery! In a quick read it takes us from crowded cities on Earth to a pristine but troubled planet where people only engage with one another through “remote viewing.” For a time of quarantine, this might be a perfect, or terrible read with lots of thoughts about contagion and living distantly.

“The Fifth Seasonby N. K. Jemisin. This book is part fantasy, part science fiction and part apocalypse. What if human beings could channel the heat of the Earth and influence tectonic movements (and more!). Jemisin’s novel centers a fantastic narrative around women’s voices and experiences and weaves together several narratives all about the end of a (different world). It gets bonus points for being the start of a trilogy. Content warnings: loss, grief, civilizational collapse.

“An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic” by Daniel Mendehlson. Mendehlson’s memoir integrates discussions of Homer’s Odyssey with memories of his late father and their life together. This emotional read provides good inspiration for reading ancient epic, sharing stories with family members, and thinking about how narratives shape our lives.

“The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson. This most recent translation of Homer’s Odyssey is the first to attempt to re-center the experiences of all the other characters who populate the epic in addition to that “complicated man,” Odysseus. Wilson’s translation is very readable and is also available in audiobook, read by Claire Danes.

— Joel Christensen, associate professor of classical studies

“The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal” by William J. Burns. A first-person account of a diplomatic career in the U.S. government spanning the big moments of the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations by a long-time State Department foreign service officer specializing in Middle East issues.

“The Ambassadors: America's Diplomats on the Front Lines” by Paul Richter. The journalist author pieces together innumerable after-the-fact interviews to follow the distinguished careers of four American ambassadors — one who died in the line of duty — as they shuffled around assignments in the Arab world tasked with advancing U.S. policies that they often did not favor.

“The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror” by Garrett Graff. A very long but fascinating account of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's wholesale shift in focus to fighting terrorism in the midst of 9/11 and, in the last several chapters, a profile of America's longest serving FBI director by a leading Robert Mueller whisperer.

Kerry Chase, associate professor of politics

These recommendations are tragic, about frantic love and loss: “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann and “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez— Jytte Klausen, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation

From students and alumni:

 “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Menocal. A beautifully written account of life among Muslims, Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain from its founding until 1492. It includes references to the Black Plague, with obvious lessons for today, as well as to the many Jewish scholars and philosophers who emerged from that civilization. Robert S. Zuckerman ’65

“Plague and Music in the Renaissance” by Remi Chui. This is a fascinating read, revealing how composers and singing populations have managed to conduct themselves in the plague-ridden years of the 15th and 16th centuries. The themes are very relevant, and Chui is an artistic writer: together this book presents a meaningful and emotionally stimulating piece of scholarship. — Eric Hollander, second year doctoral candidate in musicology

“Stand Still, Stay Silent” by Minna Sundberg. This graphic novel by a Finnish-Swedish author has been published serially online since 2013. The story follows a group of explorers in post-apocalyptic Denmark. Since the apocalyptic event was a pandemic that started very similarly to corona (but became much worse), it now seems disturbingly prophetic. The art is amazing, and cats are a recurring theme. — Haskel Pim ’23

“The Glory of Their Times” by Lawrence S. Ritter. For anyone who is a baseball fan and wondering what to do while the season is on hold, this book presents a wonderfully deep and nostalgic dive into the lives of baseball’s legends who played at the turn of the 20th century. Stories from MLB legends like Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood are mixed in with colorful secondhand accounts that give the reader both a sense of what baseball was like at the beginning of the game as well as a look at life in the United States during the 1890s to the 1930s. — Russell Hollis, Heller MBA’20

I swear this isn’t a shameless plug, but with both the pandemic and heading off to grad school in the fall, I finally had some downtime to start reading my former professor Eileen McNamara’s book: “Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World.” Though it’s no surprise to any of us who were McNamara’s former pupils or those who read her columns, her writing is fantastic, artful and her research is nuanced and detailed. Her descriptions make it feel as though you are right there in the room with Eunice Kennedy Shriver as she is making history. Having spent the past few years in state government in Virginia, watching countless advocates and even having had the opportunity to play a small role in working on a few pieces of legislation geared towards helping disabled Virginians, I think it’s amazing the lasting impact that Kennedy Shriver has had on a variety of issues that we now see as commonplace. This is a must-read for anyone who is geared towards changing the world — whether front and center or behind the scenes. — Leigh Nusbaum ’11

From staff: 

“Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel. The novel takes place in the Great Lakes border between Canada and the U.S. after a swine flu pandemic has killed most of the human population. It travels in time between a past before the flu, a current time where the flu is active, and 15 years into the future, where a traveling actor troupe brings Shakespearean plays to the remaining towns. When I first read it, probably about five years ago, I had never considered a future where human devastation is caused by disease rather than war. Now that feels very close indeed. — Jessica Basile, assistant dean of graduate student affairs 

“The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern. A delightful, wonderful and intriguing story about stories within stories, magic, libraries, etc. I’m reading for a second time now, and two quotes I particularly like are: “Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift;” and “Books are always better when read rather than explained.” — Susan Reynold, retired from library and technology services; biology and the sciences

“The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers.  This is a remarkably cozy, optimistic science fiction story about finding meaning and community in a realistically problematic world. 

“The Ghost Map,” by Steven Berlin Johnson.  If anyone else is like me and finds stories of previous epidemics weirdly reassuring, this describes Dr. John Snow's efforts to find the source of a cholera outbreak in a neighborhood of London in 1854, setting the groundwork for what would become modern epidemiology.

“The Broken Earth trilogy” by N. K. Jemisin. Starting with “The Fifth Season,” this is an oddly hopeful apocalypse. Much of it is bleak and doesn't pull its punches, but it can be cathartic to just stare at the brokenness of the world and then watch it burn down to leave the possibility of something better.

“The Murderbot stories,” by Martha Wells (the first is “All Systems Red”)Murderbot, a cyborg security construct, would really like to self-isolate and watch its favorite shows in peace, but it has to keep grumpily saving the humans instead. Delightful and hilarious.

— Sarah Hartman, metadata coordinator, Brandeis library


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