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Best Books For A Pandemic? Experts Share 20 Top Picks

An image of several books on a shelf
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

There’s no time quite like the present for escaping into someone else’s story for a bit, and, even in the technology-crazed 21st century, the written word is still the go-to medium for doing so. Books have a distinctive way of engaging hearts and minds for hours on end, providing everything from comfort and knowledge to intrigue and comic relief.

And in the St. Louis region, our local booksellers, librarians and authors are great resources for recommendations of what to read — specifically some top picks for a pandemic.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, LuAnn Locke, owner of Afterwords Books in Edwardsville, Illinois, and Jen Ohzourk, regional manager with St. Louis Public Library, talked with host Sarah Fenske and fielded listener requests and suggestions, too.

The conversation also touched on how local bookstores are finding creative ways to continue connecting their customers to great reads and how book lovers can take steps to support those independent retailers.

Here are 20 books recommended by Fenske, the two talk show guests and others who helped inform the conversation:

"The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank
“Of course there is no comparison between what Anne and her family endured and the inconveniences of our day,” Fenske says. “For me, that might be the point. She and her family hid in close quarters for 761 days. No internet. No chance to go to the grocery store. No walks in the park. They understood isolation, claustrophobia and fear. And yet Anne wrote this: ‘I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.’ And, ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’”

"Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel
“It’s post-apocalyptic without the zombies,” says Locke. “It hits very close to home — there’s a pandemic, and yeah. It’s a little bit too close for comfort.”

"World Made By Hand" series by James Howard Kunstler
“It’s set in a town [in New York], and something has happened and people have to rely on themselves … kind of going back to the old way of doing things. … There’s challenge, there’s danger, but there’s a lot of hope running through those stories and people relying on each other and helping each other,” say Ohzourk.

"The Long Winter" by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“In the winter of 1880 to 1881, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family endured serious privation in the Dakota territory. Blizzard after blizzard struck their town for seven months,” Fenske says. “They ran out of food. They ran out of coal, and wood. They had to twist hay into fuel as the winter raged on and on. Again, no comparison between what they endured and our week or month or months of social distancing. And that is the point. Books can help us understand ourselves by letting us see beyond ourselves.”

"This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together" by Jon Mooallem
“One of my fellow booksellers, Ruth Hulbert of Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska [recommends this book],” says Locke. “It just came out … it’s a story about the 1964 earthquake in Anchorage and radio reporter Genie Chance, who helped set up a makeshift information center and stayed on air over 30 hours as the voice of calm and clear information. So it’s a feel-good story about a community pulling together to respond to an unprecedented disaster.”

"Emergent Strategy" by Adrienne Maree Brown
Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen,” Gena, of Subterranean Books, says via email. “This is a resolutely materialist ‘spirituality’ based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.”

"Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness" by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Michelle, owner of the Book House in Maplewood, recommends this read for its “great practical ideas to deal with anxiety and stress.”

Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters
“A former-crusader-turned-Benedictine-monk tends an herb garden and solves crimes in the medieval town of Shrewsbury,” says local author Elsa Hart. “These books are serious enough to make you care about the fates of the characters, but warm enough to comfort.”

"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larson
“I just finished [it],” says Bonnie, a listener in Ste. Genevieve. “It’s about one year in the life of Churchill with the war, and it’s very comforting at this time to contrast ... what we’re going through with what they had to go through in London.”

"A Beginning at the End" by Mike Chen
Holland, with the Novel Neighbor in Webster Groves, calls this recently released book “so eerily timely.”

"The Stand" by Stephen King
Holland says it’s always been on her top 10 list, and Locke recommends this one as well.

"The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering The Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country" by Helen Russell
“The number of times that I laughed aloud reading this book, I can’t even tell you,” Locke says. “You will learn a lot. I was very surprised to learn some of the things that come up in the book. … It was just a very entertaining read, and I think also now since we’re all kind of sheltering in place, that’s a place where they’ve kind of mastered the art of cozy homemaking.”

"A Girl of the Limberlost" by Gene Stratton-Porter
“[This is] a wonderful novel about overcoming adversity, bringing people together and experiencing transformation through the acceptance of difficult truths,” listener Leslie writes. “It’s also a fabulous foray into the natural world. Who knew moths were SO fascinating!”

"The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman
In this nonfiction book, “each chapter goes into a situation where, ‘What if we were not around?’” says caller Max from St. Louis.

The Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different series
“Don’t forget about kids books!” Michelle of the Book House writes. “Great stories about overcoming adversity and doing something great.”

"Magic Marks the Spot" by Caroline Carlson
Author Elsa Hart recommends this one for younger readers.

"The Rook" by Daniel O’Malley
“It’s kind of what you would think of as fantasy,” Ohzourk explains. “This young woman wakes up in London, and she has no memory of who she is. And there’s a couple dead bodies by her [and] a note in her coat pocket … she has to discover who she is.”

Three final picks for ages 8 to 80 from LuAnn Locke
“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” by Kate DiCamillo
“The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse” by Charlie Mackesy
The poetry of Mary Oliver

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.