The Reading List That Got Me Through the Pandemic

Titles, links, my quick notes on each

One of the great joys of the last year — if “joy” is a word you don’t cringe at hearing as you think of “pandemic” — has been a return to reading. Real reading, of real books. I was solo inside an apartment in New York City for nearly 52 weeks, so I had a lot of time to get back to the printed-and-bound page. I made myself a commitment early on: one TV show at a time. (For me, it was RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bridgerton, then The Crown. I like queens.) I had a sneaking suspicion that if I watched too much Netflix during The Great Pause and all that followed, I would plummet off the depression cliff in mere days. I was an English major in college, and I was completely frustrated by 2020 at just how little actual reading I had been doing as I hit my 40s.

If you didn’t get a chance to do much reading during this last year, because — oh, I don’t know — you were working non-stop at your dining room table to “pivot” and save capitalism or you were home-schooling three kids who hated Zoom School or, worse, you were in head-to-toe PPE saving lives in a hospital, first I say “thank you,” and next I say “here are great reads if and when you can find the time.”

I started with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I had bought it at an airport months prior, and it was just sitting on my bookshelf. I figured it was light and quick and would help me get in the swing of things. Oh, boy, did it. After a month at home in April 2020, cleaning out and cleaning up my apartment was the perfect use of quaran-time. The Japanese “tidying expert” (who now has her own line at The Container Store) is no joke. The principles she lays out in the book have far-reaching effects — if you let them — and the cute 200-page primer proved to be a gateway to a year of personal development books that have wildly shifted my focus and changed my life. (For a deeper dive on Kondo’s book, check out this piece.)

Here are 9 (well, 16) more that followed:

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight. Sarah takes her inspiration from Marie Kondo and mixes it with no-nonsense real talk. This is the first of a series of books that help you de-clutter your brain, what she calls your “mental barn,” by taking stock of all the “fucks” you give all day long and re-budgeting them. It’s brilliant, and it helped me understand for the first time in my life why I recoil when certain people email, text, or pop up on my social screens: they just annoy me — what Sarah contrasts to Marie Kondo’s “joy.” Well worth the read if you’re a people-pleaser, can’t say no, and find yourself exhausted from too much “giving a fuck.” Yes, there is another book that sounds just like it: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. I bought that one, too, at the airport, in The Before Times. I read it right after Sarah’s. They’re really different. Read both. Sarah on Medium. Sarah’s Twitter. Get the book. For a deeper dive, read this new piece.
  2. The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. This was a particularly important read when the pandemic hit because suddenly science was subjective. Oh, ‘Murica. Now that the vaccines are here, it’s all the more important. It’s not necessarily about science but about why and how we as a society no longer trust established sources of information, fact, and objective knowledge. Tom Nichols is an academic, but the book reads easily. It helped me dive deeper into a conversation started by The Coddling of the American Mind. The two books have different takes and different perspectives, but they both address what is happening to the American intellectual brain. Tom’s Twitter. Get the book. For a deeper dive, read this piece.
  3. The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. This was a re-read for me. It’s a tome but a great one. As my work life changed, budgets disappeared, and spending tightened, this 400-page guide reminded me about all the incredible productivity tips and life hacks that have made Ferris famous. He talks about the digital economy, automating your own work, and creating passive income streams. As we come out of the pandemic and think deeply about the real value of our traditional 5-day workweek, the book struck a new chord for me. Surely, most of us can re-organize our workweek to somewhere more comfortable between five full days and four hours. Tim on Medium. Tim’s Twitter. Get the book.
  4. Buy Yourself the Fucking Lilies by Tara Shuster. A 30-something take on self-love and self-care, with a title that — as my dear friend Caroline would say — is “laced with a little liquor.” The lilies Shuster is talking about are the beautiful flowers you somehow stop yourself from buying. They’ll light up your room, your day, and your heart. In full first-person glory, she details new rituals you can practice to calm, heal, and love yourself and others. If you want less talk and more tips, check out Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown. This is literally a list of over 500 things you can do to get your life together as a fully functional adult. I read them back-to-back, and they’re glorious. Tara on Medium. Tara’s Twitter. Get the book.
  5. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. This is a thoughtful take on modern life from a masterful thinker. Woah. Jenny takes on the “attention economy” and asks profound questions (with answers) about how to deal with this horrible pressure we all feel to do, do, do. She hits art, tech, strangers, communication — all from her specific NorCal perspective — in a book that post-pandemic America needs badly. I am so glad I read it. Since I “did nothing” for a year at home, this provided a smart frame that helped me re-evaluate my own downtime. Jenny on Medium. Jenny’s Twitter. Get the book.
  6. White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. If you haven’t read it yet, it is time. It’s short but really heady, so beware. This book became the overnight must-read during the riotous summer of 2020, and I am so glad it was in the mix while I was at home. The basic thesis: white people are so damn sensitive, we can’t have really meaningful conversations about race because we make it about us (white people). The book is part of a new canon of modern race reads, along with the now iconic Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I spent my Central Park blanket time with Diangelo and Wilkerson, then added White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, which had been lingering on my shelf since 2016. That traces our history of class in America. The three together are explosive. Robin on Medium. Robin’s Twitter. Get the book.
  7. Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s been a year of great change, so I became very interested in how to actually effect changes in my own life. Enter this one. James takes us through how to make massive changes in our lives by following four laws that he lays out in the book. It’s all very “good-to-great,” in the best possible way. It reminded me of this idea that Tony Robbins talks about: you can re-direct your life by making just a 2-millimeter change. Atomic Habits is all about how we make those changes daily. It’s a great companion to Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, which comes from a more behavorial-science approach. Together, they have helped me re-design my day, my week, and my life so that what I do each day is actually building toward the life I really want. James on Medium. James on Twitter. Get the book.
  8. Subscribed by Tien Tzuo. Reading this one was like watching Fox News just so you can see what the counter-argument really is in the alternative universe of life. I read this one specifically because I have become obsessed with the modern subscription economy and why every brand on the planet wants my email, home address, credit score, and blood sample. This is the business bible that started it all. If you’re curious why you’re so addicted to consumption and Amazon and the like, read this. It’s uncomfortable and very geared toward Harvard MBAs, but it’s fascinating. Tien on Medium. Tien’s Twitter. Get the book.
  9. Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria. We all know Farred Zakaria from CNN. The man is off-the-charts brilliant. So is this book. Fareed goes deep on ten real lessons from this moment — everything from inequality to capitalism to government. There is one chapter on automation that is the perfect “hear! hear!” to The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang. If you read one book before you re-enter society and “get back to normal,” I recommend this one. If you’ve read any of my work, you know how I feel about The Great American Return to Normal. Fareed’s Twitter. Get the book.

I hope you get to read at least one of these. Do it. Take the time. It’s well worth it. I linked to Books Are Magic, my favorite book store in Brooklyn. I’m over Amazon. Sorry, not sorry.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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