Seven Books for a Literary Lockdown, from Ancient Classics to the End of the Universe
By David F. Eisler
Well, it’s been a year.
For the last nine months, we have all been living with the awareness that 2020 has been unlike any year that we have ever experienced. Maybe that gave you the drive to curl up into a comfortable chair and read more. Or perhaps you could hardly concentrate on a single paragraph before feeling the urge to switch to something easier like The Queen’s Gambit or The Tiger King (yes, that was THIS YEAR). Whether you fell into one of these extremes or somewhere in between, it’s worth pausing a moment to note the importance of the arts in helping us get through quarantines, lockdowns, American elections, and everything else that 2020 has thrown at us.
For me, the refuge of reading has been one of the year’s bright spots. In that spirit, I’ve selected a handful of my favorite books from this year to share for the holiday season. Looking for a way to put that lockdown-induced depression and anxiety into perspective while simultaneously developing an even greater sense of existential dread? Try thinking about how the fabric of the entire universe could literally rip apart at any moment. You could also lose yourself in new versions of classical Greek epics, take a walk in the forest with a greater appreciation for the community of nature, or put yourself in the minds of migrants for whom “stay at home” is a near impossible task. The seven books on this year’s list offer a diverse array of subjects to get you to the end of 2020, but above all they reveal how compelling stories can help us through even the most trying times.
The Science of the End of the Universe
Brian Greene, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (2020); Katie Mack, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (2020)
Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time is a scientific and philosophical reflection on finding meaning despite the knowledge that we, and the universe, are destined to end. Greene, a theoretical physicist best known for his book The Elegant Universe (1999) which brought cutting edge work on string theory to a general audience, casts a wide net with his subject, with chapters on entropy and evolution, language and narrative, creativity, consciousness, religion and belief, and, of course, time itself. Woven throughout his story are deep and intellectually challenging arguments on the nature of free will, determinism, and the far future of the universe as well as the quirks that come with the physics of insanely long timescales. I started reading this at the end of February and found it to be a surprisingly suitable companion to a March whose seemingly infinite days mimicked the crawling drag of cosmic evolution. Greene’s underlying argument in favor of a reductionist approach to understanding the universe—that we are all “swarms of particles” whose actions always have been and always will be governed by the tyranny of physical laws—is hard to swallow but unquestionably thought provoking. The book’s final chapters on finding meaning in a universe likely destined for emptiness were incredible.
Where Greene’s Until the End of Time is serious in both subject and tone, Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) tackles similar questions with a bit more levity. Mack’s style is crisp, charming, and witty, and her enthusiasm for the subject comes through on every page. Like Greene, Mack is also a theoretical physicist, and she delights in taking the reader on tour through five different possibilities for the end of the universe, including the current scientific thinking on each one of them. While she doesn’t sugarcoat the physics involved, the book never feels overwhelming. Well, not in its readability anyway. Despite veering uncomfortably into existential crisis territory, this book is a great and entertaining overview of some of the major concepts into contemporary astrophysics.
Fresh Takes on Greek Classics
Homer, The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson, 2018); Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (2011)
I had never read The Odyssey in its entirety, and Emily Wilson’s translation generated significant buzz before its publication in 2018. A lot of the press coverage focused on how Wilson was the first woman to translate Homer’s epic, a noteworthy fact that, in my view, should eventually become a trivial footnote compared to her incredible treatment of the actual text. In an extended critical introduction to the poem, Wilson explains many of the ways she chose to breathe a contemporary voice into a text that is often translated in a clunky, overwritten prose designed to signify its status as an ancient text rather than capture the nimble flow of the original. The result is a beautiful, accessible version that foregrounds the story with clarity and care.
Madeline Miller takes a different approach to the Homeric classics, elevating relatively minor characters in the original texts to full-blown protagonists and filling in the gaps with intriguing (and somewhat subversive) backstories. Before Miller published her monster bestseller Circe (2018), she began with The Song of Achilles, a novel that expands on the relationship between the Greek warrior-prince Achilles and his unlikely companion, Patroclus. While many retellings of The Iliad over the years have downplayed any romance between Achilles and Patroclus (the 2004 movie Troy portrays them as cousins), Miller sees this as the central element of her story. Both characters become more interesting and complex because of this, but especially Achilles as he struggles with the tension between love, duty, and a quest for glory that he can only achieve through death. Miller’s feat is not only that she crafts a genuinely moving and suspenseful tale about famous characters whose fates are predetermined, but she also infuses the story with a deeper, almost contemporary meditation on what the experience of war does to a person’s psyche.
The Community of Nature
Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018)
Climate change has become a more common theme in contemporary fiction, but most novels find the allure of the straightforward disaster story too tempting to resist. Richard Powers goes for a different tactic in The Overstory, detailing a slow-motion disaster that is already underway even if we fail to perceive it. The Overstory is beautiful, deep, emotional, and heartbreaking, following nine major characters and revealing how their lives are connected in the same hidden ways as the twisted roots of underground trees. Powers exercises delicate control over a story that could easily get out of hand, avoiding the traps of repetition or coming across as a lecture in novel form. Of everything I read this year, The Overstory caused me to think the most critically about the world.
The Humanity of Migration
Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive (2019); Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
In a year that began with the critical evisceration of Jeanine Cummin’s American Dirt (2020) as the whitewashing of an immigration story to make Americans feel better about themselves, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive stands out as a more resonant and authentic version of a similar theme. Using a patchwork family’s road trip from New York to the southwestern border as a literal and metaphorical vehicle to bring them into direct contact with the reality of the immigration crisis, Luiselli’s novel is haunting and emotional on many levels. She takes what could have been a relentlessly depressing story and punctuates it with little moments of humor, tenderness, and wit. It’s not an easy book to read—from the content to the stream of consciousness chapter near the end—but the journey is well worth the effort.
Like Lost Children Archive, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West tells a migration story through the eyes of a few close characters, this time a couple living in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The novel follows them as they, and countless others, flee their homes through a series of magic doors that appear without explanation throughout the world. Hamid’s sparse but effective prose is stunning, and there is an urgency to the novel’s pace that matches the suspense of the characters’ path from once place to another, never truly home nor accepted by those around them. Part love story, part political novel, there is a tenderness and optimism to the novel that adds a layer of complexity to a global story that often forgets to acknowledge our shared humanity.
Whatever your reading tastes or however you choose to spend your time as we mercifully finish the final chapter of 2020, I hope you find something on this list that speaks to you. Happy reading and happy holidays!