My father was ordered to the Philippines during World War II but got lucky: while he was shipping over, the war ended. When he and his buddies arrived in Manila, they were given work to keep them busy, including scraping barnacles off the bottom of Navy ships—right before said ships were to be scuttled. “Welcome to the Navy!” he told me.
Each morning, my dad and his fellows would walk from their barracks over to the notice board to see if their name appeared, ordering them home. But while his friends were getting their orders, my father’s name didn’t appear. Days turned into weeks. When there was no busy work left and the number of sailors dwindled, my dad was told to stay out of trouble.
There was a small library on base, so my father started reading books. “I never read so much in my life,” he told me many years later. A broad smile came over his face as he remembered. “I read plays, classics, contemporary stuff.” For most of the day he would lie in his hammock reading, until one morning, more than two months after he arrived, he finally did find his name on the notice board. The Navy hadn’t forgotten about him after all.
Today, in our unplanned time at home, we have more options than my father did. While many of us work via our computers, or help teach our children at home, and all of us want to stay up with the news, I hope you can also find some time to escape to your reading hammock.
In case you’re interested in a few suggestions, here are five ways for you to take a deep breath and breathe in a book...
No. 1: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
If you think we’ve got it tough (and we do), wait till you read what our great-grandparents had to contend with. When the Spanish flu attacked (spoiler alert: it didn’t come from Spain), the world was a century behind where we are today in science. British science journalist Laura Spinney takes us back into that even darker time, to the rumors and desperation, as well as to the lasting impact this worldwide debacle had on public health, art and literature.
No. 2: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua
You’ve probably heard of the Tiger Mom. Would you believe Amy Chua is also a Tiger Scholar? I had a chance to hear her present her work on modern tribalism and then devoured this book. Finally, I think I understand the basis of the political turmoil we’ve been suffering through in America. Her chapters on Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq will break your heart—and elevate your understanding.
No. 3: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
When I heard the author was criticized for not being the right sort of person to write such a book, I bought it. (Was Harriet Beecher Stowe the right sort of person to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin?) This suspenseful tale paints the inconvenient truth of how, for many migrants seeking El Norte, it’s not just to earn more money but because to stay in their homeland means death.
No. 4: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
After Bel Canto, I now read everything Ann Patchett writes. If she offered her shopping list, I’d read it. It’s not just that her writing is beautiful. Of course it is. It’s that she is an indefatigable champion for other writers, for books, for bookstores and for readers. She is America’s Book Sweetheart. (And even if you think you don’t like audio books, listen to a sample of Tom Hanks reading, and you may change your mind.) By the way, Ann offers her own timely favorite books on the PBS News Hour here.
No. 5: La Casa de los Espíritus/The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
For those of us learning another language, there are few things more valuable than reading just what interests you. And while the number of bilingual printed books is very limited, e-readers come to the digital rescue. I’ve been enjoying Isabel Allende’s dreamy The House of the Spirits in Spanish. But, since I get only most of what’s happening, I flip to the English version periodically. The ability to do this with electronic books is one of the literary blessings of our age. (Another are our literary translators.)
Stay safe, my friends, and I hope you can make do the way my dad did, and breathe in a good book or three.
P.S. Many Levenger customers over the years said to me, “I love the book stuff you guys sell; I just wish I had more time to read.” They inspired me to write The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life way back in 2005. It’s a short book designed to help readers get more books into their life, and more life from their books. It’s newly available as an e-book here.