Shelter-in-place book list: UC Berkeley librarians suggest things to read while you’re stuck at home

row of books

If you’re reading this, you’re probably hunkered down at home.

As this period of self-isolation wears on, you may start to notice a familiar feeling creeping in — of restlessness, cabin fever, or even boredom. Perhaps you’ve exhausted your stash of craft supplies, played all your board games (Yahtzee again?), and stretched the limits of your baking abilities (and racked up a few dozen likes on Instagram for your efforts).

It’s clear: We are in uncharted waters. But that doesn’t mean we need to put our imaginations on hold. It doesn’t mean that we can’t keep learning new things and exploring new worlds. More than anything, this uncertain time has forced us to take a step back and find respite in the negative spaces, the moments that fall between the cracks of life’s big events. It’s time like these when we, more than ever, turn to music, poetry, and, of course, books — to entertain us, to ground us, and to remind us of our common humanity.

With that in mind, we asked a handful of UC Berkeley librarians for their picks of books to read during this strange time. They chose everything from novels that will help you escape to another place, and another life, to a practical primer to quiet your anxious mind to, fittingly, a page-turner about “the father of epidemiology.”

And, yes, all of the selections on this list are available online — for free — so you can access them deep in the throes of social distancing. (While you’re at it, check out OverDrive, recently launched by the UC Berkeley Library, where you can find bestselling books to read and listen to anywhere.) So, as much as you can, stay calm, and read on.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)book cover

Nominated by Lisa Ngo
Engineering librarian

On her pick: A classic story that never fails to make me feel better! Almost always shelved in the kids’ section of the library, the availability of the e-book ensures that you, an Adult, no longer need to crash a storytime or fight small children to get your own copy. One of the rare books that can (and will) be read and re-read at any age.

Find it online:

Ngo’s words of wisdom: Be kind, and take care of each other.

book coverMy Ántonia (1918)

Nominated by Margaret Phillips
Librarian for gender and women’s studies, education, and psychology

On her pick: In this classic novel, Willa Cather evokes the natural beauty of the undeveloped Nebraska prairie and portrays a struggling immigrant family trying to make it in this harsh environment. Through the bittersweet remembrances of Jim, the narrator, you may fall in love a little with the tough-as-nails young heroine Ántonia.

Find it online:

Phillips’ words of wisdom: Reading a book can be a great way to escape and is far better for the soul than stress-scrolling through your newsfeed. Now, if only I could heed my own advice.

book coverThe Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (2006)

Nominated by Ann Glusker
Sociology, demography, and quantitative research librarian


On her pick: Before becoming a librarian, I spent a decade as an epidemiologist in a local public health department. Then and now, I consider epidemiologists as heroes and heroines of the human race. But before the age of sophisticated data analysis and tools, it was much harder to track health patterns in populations. That all was changed by “the father of epidemiology,” John Snow, who, in 1854, convinced a skeptical London medical establishment that cholera was spread by water and not miasma (noxious air). He did this by mapping the cases and showing how they clustered spatially around one contaminated water pump on Broad Street (an early example of data visualization). Author Steven Johnson’s account, while sometimes pretty gross, is detailed, fascinating, and gripping — and also shows how one person can contribute an innovation that changes the course of human health.

Find it online:

Glusker’s words of wisdom: While we protect ourselves and others by limiting contacts in order to flatten the curve of coronavirus transmission, remember the brave work of John Snow and the amazing corps of epidemiologists working today to track and contain COVID-19 — with much more sophisticated tools and understanding than Snow had, just over 150 years ago!

Earthseed: Parable of the Sower (1993) Sine Hwang Jensen's book pick
Earthseed: Parable of the Talents (1998)

Nominated by Sine Hwang Jensen
Asian American studies and comparative ethnic studies librarian

On her pick: This is an amazing series of two novels that combine dystopia, Afrofuturism, and speculative/science fiction. During uncertain times, I often turn to speculative fiction, where I can expand my imagination and both find some escape and also engage with deep questions and dilemmas in creative ways. Octavia Butler was a visionary speculative fiction author, and this series both expands the way we think about empathy, resistance to oppression, and disaster. Many of the books’ themes are relevant to today’s world, and they will definitely make you think!

Find it online:

Hwang Jensen’s words of wisdom: Think about who you want to be during times like these. Remember to not only take care of yourselves, but think about how we can take care of each other, especially by social distancing and supporting those in need. Remember that we are interdependent, and to ask for your help when you need it. You are not alone.

book coverCandide, or, Optimism (1759)

Nominated by Claude Potts
Romance languages librarian

On his pick: Voltaire’s satirical novella is one of those works of world literature that everyone should read at least once. Published in 1759, it was immediately condemned for its blasphemy and subversion, yet within weeks sold 6,000 copies within Paris alone. Royal censors were unable to keep up with illegal reprints, and the book quickly became a bestseller throughout Europe. On his travels, the naive Candide encounters a world of unimaginable suffering caused by both natural and human catastrophes. Amidst the horrors of war, slavery, and rape, an earthquake ravages Lisbon, and a COVID-19-like epidemic sweeps Algiers. The hero ultimately finds solace from the cruelty of the universe in his own private garden. Voltaire’s witty and multilayered text takes aim at religion, authority, and the prevailing philosophy of the time, Leibnizian optimism (asserting the world we live in is the best possible one God could have created). Candide is also featured this week in The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition, which celebrates the diversity of languages that advance research, teaching and learning at UC Berkeley.

Find it online:

Potts highlights some words of wisdom: “Reading nurtures the soul, and an enlightened friend brings it solace.” — Voltaire

UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center’s guided meditations and weekly podcasts

Nominated by Gisèle Tanasse
Film and media services librarian

On her pick: It can be so hard to concentrate right now, and even harder to quiet our minds when it is time to rest! Mindfulness and meditation are tools I use to calm anxieties, improve focus, and grow a feeling of well-being.

Find it online:

Tanasse’s words of wisdom: Sheltering in place has been an isolating experience, but it brings me such great joy to answer student, staff, and faculty questions through our chat reference services and consultation appointments, available on our Research Help page.

book coverJewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah (2017)

Nominated by Liladhar Pendse
Librarian for Latin American and Eastern European collections


On his pick: Magic and magicians have been around since the dawn of humanity. Even today, one sees many magicians trying to perform incredible feats on various programs like America’s Got Talent, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, David Blaine’s Street Magic, and others. While these shows entertain, in times of calamities and disasters, many people all over the world look for divine intervention or intercession. Yuval Noah Harari’s books provide me with a unique personal intellectual oasis in the current atmosphere of the new normal.

Find it online:

Pendse’s words of wisdom: Please follow federal, state, and local public health-related instructions. Coronavirus does not have a nationality, nor does it recognize borders and ethnicities. We must stand together to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And as librarians, we stand united to help you with your studies and research by any means necessary. United we will stand and overcome this calamity, not through magic, but through undaunted outreach and current technological means!

book coverLab Girl (2016)

Nominated by Michael Sholinbeck
Public health librarian

On his pick: If you enjoy dry humor and science antics, this book (a memoir about botany and friendship) is for you! Plus, the author (Hope Jahren) got her degree at UC Berkeley!

Find it online:

Sholinbeck’s words of wisdom: Make sure you take time to move your body away from that screen every day!

Cutting for Stone (2009)book coveer

Nominated by Susan Edwards
Social welfare librarian and head of the Library’s Social Sciences Division

On her pick: Cutting for Stone is an absorbing novel that transports the reader through time and space — from India to Ethiopia to New York. It’s a sprawling and engrossing read, mixing adventure, romance, and social commentary. Abraham Verghese also authored the terrific memoir My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS. His fiction is grounded in his experience as an immigrant, a person of color, and a doctor well-versed in issues of pandemics and unequal access to health care.

Find it online:

Edwards’ words of wisdom: We’re still here — please reach out. Physical distancing is necessary, (complete) social distancing is not!

book coverWilliam Wordsworth (2008)

Nominated by Stacy Reardon
Literatures and digital humanities librarian

On her pick: Sometimes we have no choice but to exhaust all of our energy understanding the nature of the crisis we’re living through, but sometimes we also need a respite. For this reason, I chose an old standby, the poetry of one of the great English poets, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Wordsworth lived through much personal tragedy — both his parents passed away before he was fully grown, and two of his children died in their youth. Particularly when read aloud, the steady rhythm of the lines as the poet meditates on nature, the will, and the imagination — where he both understands our uncertainty and stands as a bulwark against despair — gives strength during uneasy times.

Find it online:

Reardon’s words of wisdom: This is a stressful time, and I find that setting aside a few minutes to quiet the outside world and take solace in the meditations of great minds gives strength for the rest of the day’s challenges.

Responses were edited for brevity and clarity.