You are stuck at home. The potatoes, groats and onions are all bought. You have oceans of time, so… read! Here are 10 books to help you extract a little sense and joy from quarantine.
Reading is soothing and transports us to other worlds. It engages the mind, reinvigorating the numerous connections between our neurones. It relaxes and brings happiness. A book is a good friend during times of stress, insecurity and feelings of isolation. You can take it as an e-book, order it online with delivery to an automated parcel locker and, if it’s a classic, it’s probably on your shelves already.
War and Peace
For as long as you can remember, you’ve been postponing it until your retirement. But because life turns out to be rather flaky (and retirement was always uncertain), don’t delay! Four chunky volumes, love requited and unrequited, high-flying and shattered ideals, the European aristocracy and their values nearing the end of their days, the last grand balls, (melo)dramatic battle scenes and, last but not least, a man – miniscule within the grand sweep of history. A beautiful and magnificent novel that you simply won’t appreciate while reading superficially or in a hurry. However, during times of plague and melancholy, you have an excellent chance!
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
In her cult book, the Canadian journalist dissects the way in which huge economic changes were introduced in times of social shock. By evoking attacks in Chile, the transformation of the post-Soviet block, or the tragedy in Tiananmen Square, Klein brings a convincing indictment against neoliberalism. But most of all, she reminds us that while there is great commotion and anxiety in the foreground, a new order is being created in the background. This is a sobering book and a reminder that, even in fearful moments, we should keep an eye on the authorities and defend freedom at all cost.
The Century of the Surgeon
It holds the suspense like the very best true crime novels; utterly absorbing and uplifting since it proves that, whatever awaits us today, it was much worse in the past. This is a history of the first medical operations; about the courage of doctors and patients, and the pioneers who broke down the doors to the treatment of diseases and injuries formerly thought to be deadly. And although these are gory and painful stories, they create one of the most optimistic non-fiction books around. The history of medicine is portrayed as a ceaseless pushing of the boundaries. A game played for the highest stakes, in which many have sacrificed themselves to conquer disease and give a better, longer life to us all. Yes, we can!
The Salt Path
Are you oppressed by the lockdown and would give anything for the feeling of freedom? Imagine this. You are walking a route along the hills of the south-western coastline of Great Britain, through Devon and Cornwall. Lavender is all around, and down below you are the majestic waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby other travellers swim, i.e. dolphins and whales. It’s so beautiful and so visceral, because you have nothing; just a tent, a spare shirt and a £50 budget for two – yourself and a loved one who already knows that they are dying. In this situation, the journey is everything and every step is pure happiness. This is a true story. There are such things as life-saving books. This is one of them.
View with a Grain of Sand
This collection appeared in 1996 when the Polish poet fell victim to the ‘Stockholm tragedy’ (overwhelmed by the attention from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was a runaway bestseller, as well as probably the first case since the times of Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz when poetry actually made it into every Polish home. The volume contains everything necessary for a moment filled with happiness, blurred and quite fragile. There is no heart that Mrs Szymborska couldn’t soothe, nor any cosmic dilemma that she is unable to help us manage. Her poetry is micro-medicine which, when taken in small doses, performs miracles.
P.S.: In case View… is unobtainable, any of her other volumes will work equally well. Other poets also won’t do you any harm.
In Search of Lost Time
This choice needs no justification, but allow me to explain anyway. It is a timeless book, which no one has the time to read. Reading Proust is akin to climbing Mount Everest without oxygen; you suffer along the way, but the sense of achievement is incomparable. Reading this allows you to accomplish the following all at once: you will forever sparkle in company, feel like a world champion, and improve the literacy statistics in your country (in Poland, 37% of people manage to read only one book a year). It is easy to calculate how this seven-volume masterpiece can liberate you from the moral obligation to read in the foreseeable future, leaving you free to binge on Netflix with a clear conscience until 2027.
The Children of Noisy Village
Why? Because there is a 99% chance that you have this book at home. Even if you don’t have children, your childhood is still enchanted by it, so you keep an old edition on an upper shelf. When you come across it and brush the dust off, your heart beats a little faster. Because the Scandinavian model of education is still very much in fashion. Because you will hugely enjoy reading it and will have sweet dreams afterwards. And because everyone in Poland should read to their children for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, every day. Virus or not, the absence of books in life is a misery worse than disease.
Polish Cuisine: Recipes Old and New (or any other cook book)
Reading recipes is a sure way to unwind. It stimulates the imagination of taste and, above all, soothes the nerves. A recipe has no ambiguities or dilemmas. It is a world without shadows or threats. One doesn’t have to decide anything. Just allow yourself to be lulled by the soft voice of the domestic goddess who leads you harmlessly towards fulfilment. Here, each sentence sounds like a philosophical truth that cannot be argued with. For example: “Undoubtedly, the most important addition to any salad is a sauce, which binds all the ingredients together, turning it into a complete dish.”
The genre of literature for cooks is fairy-tale non-fiction with a guaranteed happy ending. It should be read aloud with tender intonation.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
A must-read for the 21st- century intellectual. Hailed as the book of the decade, it is the history of the human race. It has so many good points that here we have restricted ourselves to just three. First, the author compellingly and precisely explains how we became masters of the Earth and how many phenomenal achievements have contributed to our civilization. Second, he brilliantly and mercilessly rubs our noses in the fact that we are the deadliest creatures in history. Third, Sapiens acts like a mirror, enabling us to see the complicated truth about our role in the great order of things.
This biography of humankind has changed the way we think about ourselves and has awakened a great conscience about the climate.
Murder on the Orient Express
The perfect crime novel. Even read repeatedly, at various stages of life and in different circumstances, it doesn’t lose its edge and is invariably enjoyable. Because there’s nothing better than a murder in refined company, conducted with imagination and rare talent. A luxury train carriage, a dozen or so passengers, snow-covered train tracks, a corpse and… the waxed moustache of Hercule Poirot, a pedant with a heart of gold, an aristocratic bearing, and lightning intellect. A feast for lovers of clear plots and linguistic elegance; and also for those who want to engage their minds in an intricately-constructed mystery in which bad things only happen to the bad, and good manages to triumph before the legendary train reaches its intended destination in London.
We recommend washing your hands carefully before reading. For it is a good thing when good manners and mental hygiene go hand in hand, from cover to cover.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz