12 Books to Help You Love Reading Again

Reading is hard right now. The pandemic has pushed our already scattered attention spans to a crisis point. But even before 2020, stressors such as political chaos and the allure of our phones made it harder and harder to find the time and focus to get lost in a book. Even when we’re not living through a distracting moment, we will inevitably have personal fallow periods when reading as a habit and a respite just doesn’t happen.

Certain writing is able to grab us and shake us out of these ruts—by presenting a breakneck adventure we feel compelled to see through; by gently opening us back up to the thrill of a good story; by allowing us to spend time in the mind of a fictional character. When they appear to us at the right moment and in the right way, these books can act as a bridge that leads us back to the rewards of literature. Below, our staff members have compiled 12 books that rekindled our love for reading after a dry spell.

The cover of Heartburn

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

After I had my twins in the summer of 2020, when my brain was as sludgy as risotto and I couldn’t imagine finishing a CNN chyron, let alone a novel, my very brilliant friend Annalisa recommended Heartburn as a “gateway” back into reading. I finished it in a few days, sucking up the chapters like air or a cocktail. The book is a lightly (very lightly) fictionalized version of Ephron’s own devastating marital crisis, when she discovered that her husband, the former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, was having an affair with a mutual friend while Ephron was pregnant with their second child. Somehow, it’s hysterical. Ephron’s tone throughout is part stand-up comic, part beloved friend sending a bitchy, meandering email. In one paragraph, her thoughts turn from despair to suicidal ideation to the habits of “neurasthenic,” poetic sad girls to this take on that famous genre: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole.” Did I mention that recipes are folded into the text? An actually perfect novel. — Sophie Gilbert

The cover of The Plot

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Recently, during a particularly grim stretch of months, I was desperate to get lost in a book. I kept searching for something that would echo what I was feeling: serious reflections on sickness, grief and loss, the world ending. But I couldn’t finish anything. Getting to the last page always seemed like hiking up a mountain; it would be worthwhile, even beautiful, but also exhausting. When I read The Plot, I realized I’d been picking the wrong material. The title of Korelitz’s twisty thriller feels like a wink to the reader. It is, in fact, a plot-driven book about the power of a good plot. (Things kick off when a writer steals a dynamite story line from a dead person.) That’s not to say the book is only action; it plays with meaty questions about artistic ownership, gender, and creative identity. But Korelitz leans into the drama and the fun. Sometimes, when you want a book to take you away, you have to choose one that doesn’t hit home. — Faith Hill

The cover of Intimations

Intimations, by Zadie Smith

Reading about the pandemic may sound like a terrible idea for someone trying to move past the misery of the pandemic. But Smith’s Intimations, a collection of essays written during and about the isolation and anxiety of 2020, serves less as a bleak reminder of our social-distancing era and more as comforting evidence that even one of the most clear-eyed authors struggled to shape her thoughts. Some passages come off like first drafts, but that moved me: Smith seemed as reluctant as I was to contend directly with the virus’s toll, as torn as I felt about attempting to turn my dread into sourdough. Absorbing her musings, especially about writing, reassured me; her prose was as beautifully structured as ever, but she wasn’t forcing herself to find answers. At barely more than 100 pages long, Intimations is a literary compass, compact and unassuming, but essential to finding a way forward. — Shirley Li

[Read: The literature of the pandemic is already here]

The cover of Turtle Diary
New York Review Books

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban

Turtle Diary doesn’t move very fast. It doesn’t have any real dramatic tension, either: The book’s two melancholy and otherwise unconnected narrators, William and Neaera, encounter no obstacles in their shared quest to release three sea turtles living at the London Zoo back into the ocean. The zookeeper is an eager accomplice. Their journey across England, their charges tucked in the back of a rented van, is eventless. The turtles slip easily into the water and swim away. This is not a book that screams Don’t put me down! And yet, after I had spent more than a year with my attention frayed by the dual demands of editing stories about the pandemic and caring for my baby—after I had spent many months too distracted to think about books—I kept reading because of Turtle Diary’s calm, its quiet interiority. However undramatic, the turtles’ release is a transformative moment for both William and Neaera, and afterward, they feel more at ease in the world and with themselves. Only a book could capture the intimacy of a shift like that, and offer the pleasure of sharing in it. — Sarah Laskow

The cover of In the Dream House
Graywolf Press

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado

To borrow the architectural metaphor that animates In the Dream House, this isn’t a memoir you read so much as one that you wander through, room by room. I toured it, so to speak, in less than a day, trying to wean my brain off social media and reacquaint it with the slow, analog pleasures of following a single narrative for an extended period. To tell a difficult story about domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, Machado resorts to an unconventional, fragmented structure. A mesmerizing narrator, she weaves personal narrative with intelligent and often darkly funny interrogations of literary and pop-cultural tropes. Chapters are short and given intriguing titles such as “Dream House as Schrödinger’s Cat” and “Dream House as Noir.” (The chapter “Dream House as Famous Last Words” is simply the sentence “‘We can fuck,’ she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’”) The effect is accumulative and devastating, and the memoir’s many pieces add up to an inventive reckoning with cultural silence. — Lenika Cruz

[Read: The shadow pandemic]

The cover of Goodbye, Vitamin
Henry Holt and Co.

Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

After Ruth’s fiancé breaks up with her, she quits her job, returns home, and helps care for her father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It sounds like a bummer of a premise, but Goodbye, Vitamin is actually one of the most life-affirming books I’ve ever read. When I’m in a reading rut, it’s usually because of stress, which leaves me unable to focus on a dense narrative. This novel is the perfect antidote: It’s a short read, and most scenes are less than a page long; many are just a couple of lines. It’s a story told in small everyday moments, and the knowledge that Ruth has limited time left with her father imbues each with meaning. Its comforts are deeper than escapism; by showing, never telling, it demonstrates that all the moments of our stupid little lives, even the hard and mundane ones, add up to something profound. But it’s really funny too! Khong expertly balances the silly and the sublime until the last page—even now, years after I first read it, thinking of the book’s final lines can make me cry. — Julie Beck

The cover of All About Love
William Morrow

All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks

In the blustering December days following the death of the Black feminist titan bell hooks, the first wave of the Omicron variant rapidly overtook New York City. Under such foreboding conditions, I rarely seek out nonfiction that isn’t explicitly work-related. But in reading so many moving tributes to hooks, I was compelled to revisit All About Love: New Visions, a brisk, personal read. Interspersing cultural analysis with anecdotes from her own life, hooks ponders what love could look like in action. “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation,” she writes. It’s at once an incisive critique of elevating romantic connections above all other kinds and a guide to employing what hooks calls a “love ethic” as a communal balm. This is the kind of nonfiction that feels like an invitation. All About Love holds the same enthralling power over me now as it did when I first encountered it as a college freshman. When I arrived at its final pages again, I was comforted by the thought that more awaited me—in the rest of hooks’s Love Song to the Nation trilogy, in her broader oeuvre, and in the other nonfiction it guided me back to. — Hannah Giorgis

The cover of Trio

Trio, by William Boyd

During the Trump era, I stopped reading books. Maybe this is understandable. The human brain is no more designed for a sustained assault on its attention than it is for metabolizing Froot Loops, and that’s essentially what Donald Trump’s presidency required: the unremitting ingestion of Twitter’s neon birdseed. Yet still I was alarmed. For two-plus years, I’d been a daily book critic at The New York Times. How on earth did I lose the skill to stay with a novel? Two things got me reading again: the election of a dull, steady, Twitter-indifferent president, which gave me the permission I needed to lose myself in fiction, and the arrival of a galley of Trio. It takes place in Brighton during the swinging ’60s, and though its scope is less ambitious than some of Boyd’s cradle-to-grave pseudo-biographies, it’s great fun nonetheless, focusing on a trio of characters (an actor, a writer, and a film producer) involved in the desperate and occasionally redeeming project of making art. I was instantly transported by their excesses, frailties, and deceptions. Boyd, an expert conjurer of worlds, writes with his customary energy and wit. Plus, one of his minor devils has the unimprovable name of Janet Headstone. Who could resist? — Jennifer Senior

[Read: The exquisite pain of reading in quarantine]

The cover of Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I read Clarke’s jewel of a novel during our first pandemic winter. At a time when creative virtuosity was the last thing on most of our minds, Piranesi floored me with its imaginative heft. A man called Piranesi lives in a house with many rooms that is sometimes flooded by the sea. He can’t remember how he got there, but he occupies his time by mapping its cavernous, statuary-filled halls. He fishes for food and makes coverings for his feet. (He wonders, at one point, whether he can knit socks from seaweed. He decides he cannot.) He also catalogs and gives names to the few people he knows or eventually discovers exist: the Other, the Prophet, 16. The reveal—why Piranesi is in the house, who his compatriots are, why his memory is so hazy—is wildly inventive. Clarke explores grand themes (consciousness, hubris) with tenderness and contrasts brilliantly austere environs with her protagonist’s warm curiosity, which registers like a beating heart. Reading along, I felt the pleasure of trusting a master storyteller; gently, slowly, she illuminated the dark until I was, like Piranesi himself, standing in the bright light of the world outside the house. — Jane Yong Kim

The cover of The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

After numbing my early-pandemic terror by getting lost in video games, I became immersed in a story that was, in part, about gaming through the apocalypse. Liu’s sci-fi landmark, The Three-Body Problem, opens with scenes from China’s Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and then traverses decades in which aliens seem to be messing with Earthly affairs, leading humankind’s brightest minds to treat their everyday reality as a puzzle to be solved. One character becomes mesmerized by a multiplayer virtual world that seems to hold clues about the mounting glitchiness of meatspace. Other characters devote themselves to quests—for hidden knowledge, for interstellar connection, for the reform of our species—with the kind of fervency that blots out all other pursuits. Devouring the book felt like completing a series of mind-bending challenges on the way to some unimaginable final level. But Liu’s exact prose and restless, point-of-view-switching narrative style paid off the obsession in a way that no game could. — Spencer Kornhaber

[Read: What happens if China makes first contact?]

The cover of The Thief
Greenwillow Books

The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

I felt like a ragged cuticle in 2020—exposed, inflamed, sensitive. Everything was overstimulating, even books. As the year dragged on, I decided that if reading was impossible, I’d try rereading. I began with Turner’s 1996 novel, which I’d loved in middle school but mostly forgotten. Set in a preindustrial Hellenistic world with a vividly imagined history and mythology, the book’s titular pickpocket, Gen, is a charming scoundrel who’s sprung from jail and drafted for a mysterious mission. The reasons why he travels across the country, and what his companions need a thief for, trickle out slowly alongside intrigue and banter. Turner’s story is heavy on politics and reality, which makes its mysterious supernatural implications irresistible. And when I reached the crucial, climactic twist that gives the entire journey a new meaning, the revelation of a character’s true identity and my giddy original discovery of it more than a decade ago rushed back. I immediately picked up its sequel, just as I had the first time around, and read all the way through the five other books in the series—ending with the serendipitously released 2020 conclusion, Return of the Thief. — Emma Sarappo

The cover of The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Early in the pandemic, I noticed that my daughters, who were 10 and 7 then, had stopped reading. Once the snow-day giddiness of those early weeks faded and some semblance of routine returned, they seemed incapable of losing themselves in books. I couldn’t blame them; my reading time was mostly spent refreshing websites that gave the numbers of the infected and dead. And then, one evening, I picked up Anne Frank’s diary. The choice was maybe morbid (and it’s possible they weren’t quite ready for it), but I sat on the floor in their room and began reading a few entries to them before bed. I’d forgotten how the diary starts with Anne in freedom, all earnestness and schoolgirl obsession. The girls loved it. And then Anne’s life begins to contract. What menaced her was so much more dangerous and deadly than COVID; they understood that. But they also couldn’t help relating: Anne peeks out the window of her attic to catch a glimpse of sky and rooftop. At one point, she wonders, “When will we be allowed to breathe fresh air again?” They kept asking for one more entry, and I kept wanting to slow down. Reading was giving them pleasure again, but I knew, as they didn’t yet, how her story ended. — Gal Beckerman

​​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Older Post Newer Post