Finding Comfort in the Classics

Editors and writers on the Books desk — along with colleagues from the newsroom — recommend some time-tested books that offer escape from the present moment.

By Elisabeth Egan and Tina Jordan

Sometimes you want to blot out the news by picking up the latest thriller or romance novel. At other times, though, the books that give you the most solace are the ones that have stood the test of time.

‘The Turn of the Screw,’ by Henry James

Maybe this is weird, but I find that a really effective way to pull myself out of unwanted feelings is through ghost stories. Henry James got me into horror in the first place, so he’s who I return to over and over. Somehow “The Jolly Corner” and “Owen Wingrave” and, of course, “The Turn of the Screw” still spook me no matter how many times I read them. — Lauren Christensen, preview editor, the Book Review

‘How to Cook a Wolf,’ by M.F.K. Fisher

There’s a real comfort and intimacy to great recipe writing: a steady hand telling you exactly what to do, the promise of a satisfying result. It may not be her best-known book, but “How to Cook a Wolf,” first published in 1942 at the peak of wartime shortages and despair, is a fine example of M.F.K. Fisher’s stylish and highly literary prose. I’ve found myself reaching for it in recent days less for the dishes she suggests (I remain leery about spaghetti with honey and almonds) than for her clarity and sensible advice, built on the experiences of families who had to extract bouillon from a stone. It’s a reminder that even in the bleakest circumstances, it’s essential to take our nourishment seriously. As she puts it: “Even the wolf, temporarily appeased, cannot live on bread alone.” — Joumana Khatib, senior staff editor, Books

‘A Collection of Essays,’ by George Orwell

I don’t know about others, but my attention span has shortened considerably at present, and I’m constantly checking the news for the latest horror. Orwell is great in general, but especially great now when his essays allow you to pick and choose among the most serious subjects and the least. And he knows something about horror. — Barry Gewen, preview editor, the Book Review

‘Possession,’ by A.S. Byatt

I love the dual plotline, the sense that things are happening both in the past and the present. I love all the ways it uses language from letters and diary entries to poetry. And it contains one of my favorite lines of all time: “In his time, students were grounded in spelling and had learned poetry and the Bible by heart. An odd phrase, ‘by heart,’ he would add, as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.” Not a month goes by when I don’t think about that line. Going back to it today, I found myself looking anew at the line that follows: “In the best English tradition, he did not consider it his business to equip his deficient students with tools they had not got. They must muddle through in a fog of grumble and contempt.” That one resonates in a new way now. I feel deficiently prepared for the moment we’re in. I feel like I too am muddling through in a fog of many feelings but definitely, in there, grumble and contempt. — Veronica Chambers, senior editor, Special Projects

‘Oblomov,’ by Ivan Goncharov

The protagonist of one of my favorite novels, Ivan Goncharov’s “Oblomov,” is a hero of our time. Oblomov spends very nearly the entire book in his apartment — specifically, “on his divan and almost always asleep,” in the words of Tatyana Tolstaya, who argues that “anyone who wants to understand the inscrutable Russian soul should start by reading ‘Oblomov.’” If you’re more curious about the inscrutable American soul, stick to the daily news briefings. — David Kelly, managing editor, the Book Review

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ by Leo Tolstoy

Hats off to A Public Space for their virtual “War and Peace” book club, but for anyone with kids at home or with other time-sucking commitments, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a truly great Tolstoy option at a fraction of the length. All good stories about dying are in fact life-affirming, but here’s one that cuts right through the mushiness and melodrama to the toughest questions about being human, and still manages to be bright and even funny at times.

I’m also finding odd comfort in Donald Barthelme’s short stories. It’s the kind of brilliant absurdist humor that comes with just a tinge of sadness. — Dave Kim, preview editor, the Book Review

Like Dave, my attention span is shortened and I found myself going to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The narrator’s dying, and it’s when death is in sight that he sees his materialistic and self-serving day-to-day was its own living death, how his mundane life against his hysterical reaction to impending nothingness is so contrasted. Nothing as dramatic going on for me right now during social distancing, but it makes me interrogate — at least gently — what makes a life (what makes my life). — Tammy Tarng, researcher, Books

‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ by Norton Juster

I still like to flip through my old dog-eared copy of “The Phantom Tollbooth” from back in the day. You remember this children’s classic: A bored boy receives a tollbooth that allows him to enter an exciting new fantasy world without leaving his room. What we’d all do for tollbooths right now, right? — Marc Lacey, editor, National

‘The American Way of Death,’ by Jessica Mitford

For many years my favorite nonfiction book was Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” a critique of the bloated funeral industry. It’s among the books that made me want to become a journalist. I plan to revisit it and not entirely for ghoulish reasons. This book seems to me perfect in its blend of criticism and reportage. It’s the work of an artist. It’s darkly witty but backs up every savage assertion about an industry in which, in the intervening six decades, little has changed. — Dwight Garner, critic, Books

‘The Habit of Being,’ by Flannery O’Connor
‘The Collected Stories,’ by William Trevor

I’m going to cheat and recommend two, because they’re both approachable in bites and you can alternate between them. This feels like a time to remember the pleasures of old-fashioned forms of correspondence, and to maybe feel like you have a prolific pen pal of your own. “The Habit of Being” collects Flannery O’Connor’s wise, biting, sometimes infuriating letters, all written in her remarkably certain voice. And William Trevor’s “Stories” is one of my most indispensable books. Dive in anywhere, or go start to finish. — John Williams, editor and staff writer, Books

‘Beloved,’ by Toni Morrison

I’ve noticed Toni Morrison peeking into the corners of a fair number of my FaceTime and Zoom parties recently from the nightstands of my friends. It’s not surprising; she’s a trusted ancestor whose wisdom makes you feel safe. But while most people I know seem to be reading her essays, I’ve been paging through “Beloved.” It might seem odd that I’ve chosen a tragic book for a tragic time, but in a strange way, it’s helping me. First of all, the book is so immersive that within a few sentences, I’m completely transported out of the moment we are living now. (I don’t think I’d be able to lose myself reading something sunnier, even if I wanted to.) And her microscopically close observations are something I try to emulate and apply to people I encounter — virtually, unless I’m on a walk — throughout the day. They deepen my empathy for individuals without requiring me to think about the macro, which can be paralyzing. — Caitlin Dickerson, immigration reporter, National

‘The Big Sleep,’ by Raymond Chandler

When racked with confusion or uncertainty, I tend to find refuge in the hard-boiled detective fiction I fell in love with as a boy, which for me allows for total immersion in the mystery of the narrative itself while also invoking a warm nostalgia for the hours spent reading ancient, sweet-smelling editions of “The Hardy Boys,” on the carpeted floor of the town library, gone to the world. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is of course the godfather of gumshoes, and my (perhaps predictable) go-to is “The Big Sleep.” How can one resist a writer whose chapters open with descriptions of the moon as only “half gone from the full”? — Tas Tobey, senior news assistant, the Book Review

‘Frankenstein,’ by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Like some of my colleagues on the Books desk, I like to turn to horror for comfort. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but it works for me — especially this delicious, dark Gothic novel, which has riveted readers for 200 years. It’s cunningly constructed and beautifully written (I love the scene where Dr. Frankenstein, having assembled his monster from scraps gathered in dissecting rooms and graveyards, finally brings him to life, only to recoil from his black lips, watery eyes and yellow skin). And it asks a lot of the Big Questions about the nature of evil, the limits of science and the moral dilemmas we face in everyday life. — Tina Jordan, deputy editor, the Book Review

‘Charlotte’s Web,’ by E.B. White

I read this one for two reasons — because every word and sentence is perfectly rendered, and because we are all Wilbur, needing a Charlotte to save our lives at one point or another. — Matt Futterman, deputy editor, Sports

‘If This Is a Man,’ by Primo Levi

Not to draw what would be a false and obscene equivalence — God forbid! — but my mind keeps turning to the literature of the Holocaust and specifically to those survivors who wrote well about what it took to maintain normalcy in horrific situations. No one did this better than Primo Levi. The meaning he took from the act of continuing to regularly wash one’s face even with the world collapsing around you, even when it seemed completely pointless, has always stayed with me and returns these days. To survive, he wrote, “we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.” — Gal Beckerman, preview editor, the Book Review

‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ by Gabriel García Márquez

I do not tend toward rereading, but I have taken to flipping through the pages of this epic, reading at random. The Buendía clan experiences countless tragedies over the course of a century — deaths, doomed romances, the ravages of war — but I find comfort in the passage of time, in how circumstances shift constantly for its characters, in how everything eventually becomes past. The perpetual solitude of the Buendía family brings a sort of order to their lives, an organizing principle, and it gives me a lens through which to think about our own forced isolation and how deeply it might permeate our lives. — Concepción de León, staff writer, Books

‘To the Lighthouse,’ by Virginia Woolf

When I’m feeling worried or unmoored, I pull my college copy of “To the Lighthouse” from the shelf of A-list books in my dining room. I get a kick out of the very sincere notes in the margins (I was in my fountain pen phase), but what I really appreciate is the book’s combination of melancholy and anticipation. Will the beleaguered Ramsay family make their pilgrimage? Will the weather clear? I still stand by the girl who underlined this passage: “What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.” — Elisabeth Egan, preview editor, the Book Review

‘Emma,’ by Jane Austen

When I was in eighth grade in Vermont, my classmates and I had to do presentations on an area of our expertise. The boy before me did hunting, and described killing a deer, skinning the animal and tanning the leather himself, while passing around the deer hide as a visual aid. I followed with a poster board illustrating the collected works of Jane Austen. As pandemic-inflected thoughts flicker toward survival skills, one can argue which adolescent area of expertise is more useful in the moment. But I have never been hunting, so I am sticking to survivalist Austen. I returned to “Emma” recently primarily because Autumn de Wilde’s delightful adaptation is the last movie I’ll see in a theater for a long time. Also, Emma Woodhouse is good for social distance: She shows how to make the most of severely circumscribed circumstances, and how to make peace with the fact that, despite how hard you try, you can’t bend the world to your will. It is also touching to remember what she sacrifices for her father’s health and well-being, resolving to stay at home and take care of him. Today, for my own father’s health and well-being, I must stay as far from his home as I can. He is practicing Zoom, though, so if we want to, we can talk about “Emma.” — Rachel Dry, deputy editor, Politics

‘The Little Prince,’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Normally, under times of stress, I find myself turning to speculative literature — for a long time, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was my security blanket. But these days while I still find joy in rereading The Expanse book series, which I only discovered last year, I find myself turning to an old standby: “The Little Prince” in its original French, the language in which I first read it. It’s a tiny book with big messages around love, loss and longing, which when mixed with my own nostalgia for earlier times feel especially resonant right now. — Kendra Pierre-Louis, reporter, Climate

‘The Woman in White,’ by Wilkie Collins
‘The Mayor of Casterbridge,’ by Thomas Hardy

One of the things I enjoy most about the great, big 19th-century novels is how page-turningly well plotted they are, leaving readers of the serialized versions standing by New York Harbor waiting for the next installment to arrive for good reason. They are the original Netflix binge. I didn’t read any Wilkie Collins until recently, but “The Woman in White” is now one of my favorite novels of all time. I won’t give anything away (plot really does count here), but I will say it’s got two of the most entertainingly wicked villains in all of English literature. I highly recommend it for our moment: You cannot put this book down; the rest of the world slips away. I’ll add one more great classic I read recently, Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” As with all Hardy novels, just when you think things cannot get more tragic, they take a turn for the worse. I prefer terrible things within the confines of good fiction. — Pamela Paul, editor of the Book Review

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