Most of my conversations and meetings these days are about COVID-19 and how we can stem the tide. But I’m also often asked about what I am reading and watching—either because people want to learn more about pandemics, or because they are looking for a distraction. I’m always happy to talk about great books and TV shows (and to hear what other people are doing, since I’m usually in the market for recommendations).
So, in addition to the five new book reviews I always write for my summer book list, I included a number of other recommendations. I hope you find something that catches your interest.
My 2020 summer book recommendations
The Choice, by Dr. Edith Eva Eger. This book is partly a memoir and partly a guide to processing trauma. Eger was only sixteen years old when she and her family got sent to Auschwitz. After surviving unbelievable horrors, she moved to the United States and became a therapist. Her unique background gives her amazing insight, and I think many people will find comfort right now from her suggestions on how to handle difficult situations.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. This is the kind of novel you’ll think and talk about for a long time after you finish it. The plot is a bit hard to explain, because it involves six inter-related stories that take place centuries apart (including one I particularly loved about a young American doctor on a sailing ship in the South Pacific in the mid-1800s). But if you’re in the mood for a really compelling tale about the best and worst of humanity, I think you’ll find yourself as engrossed in it as I was.
The Ride of a Lifetime, by Bob Iger. This is one of the best business books I’ve read in several years. Iger does a terrific job explaining what it’s really like to be the CEO of a large company. Whether you’re looking for business insights or just an entertaining read, I think anyone would enjoy his stories about overseeing Disney during one of the most transformative times in its history.
The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry. We’re living through an unprecedented time right now. But if you’re looking for a historical comparison, the 1918 influenza pandemic is as close as you’re going to get. Barry will teach you almost everything you need to know about one of the deadliest outbreaks in human history. Even though 1918 was a very different time from today, The Great Influenza is a good reminder that we’re still dealing with many of the same challenges.
Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. Banerjee and Duflo won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last year, and they’re two of the smartest economists working today. Fortunately for us, they’re also very good at making economics accessible to the average person. Their newest book takes on inequality and political divisions by focusing on policy debates that are at the forefront in wealthy countries like the United States.
Other books worth reading
The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe. For years, I was a skeptic about meditation. Now I do it as often as I can—three times a week, if time allows. Andy’s book and the app he created, Headspace, are what made me a convert. Andy, a former Buddhist monk, offers lots of helpful metaphors to explain potentially tricky concepts in meditation. At a time when we all could use a few minutes to de-stress and re-focus each day, this is a great place to start.
Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. If you’re looking to work on a new skill, you could do worse than learning to memorize things. Foer is a science writer who got interested in how memory works, and why some people seem to have an amazing ability to recall facts. He takes you inside the U.S. Memory Championship—yes, that’s a real thing—and introduces you to the techniques that, amazingly, allowed him to win the contest one year.
The Martian, by Andy Weir. You may remember the movie from a few years ago, when Matt Damon—playing a botanist who’s been stranded on Mars—sets aside his fear and says, “I’m going to science the s*** out of this.” We’re doing the same thing with the novel coronavirus.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. The main character in this novel is living through a situation that now feels very relatable: He can’t leave the building he’s living in. But he’s not stuck there because of a disease; it’s 1922, and he’s a Russian count who’s serving a life sentence under house arrest in a hotel. I thought it was a fun, clever, and surprisingly upbeat story about making the best of your surroundings.
The Rosie Trilogy, by Graeme Simsion. All three of the Rosie novels made me laugh out loud. They’re about a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who (in the first book) goes looking for a wife and then (in the second and third books) starts a family. Ultimately the story is about getting inside the mind and heart of someone a lot of people see as odd, and discovering that he isn’t really that different from anybody else. Melinda got me started on these books, and I’m glad she did.
I don’t read a lot of comics or graphic novels, but I’ve really enjoyed the few that I have picked up. The best ones combine amazing storytelling with striking visuals. In her memoir The Best We Could Do, for example, Thi Bui gains a new appreciation for what her parents—who survived the Vietnam War—went through. It’s a deeply personal book that explores what it means to be a parent and a refugee.
On the lighter side is Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened, by Allie Brosh. You will rip through it in three hours, tops. But you’ll wish it went on longer, because it’s funny and smart as hell. I must have read Melinda a dozen hilarious passages out loud.
Finally, I love the way that former NASA engineer Randall Munroe turns offbeat science lessons into super-engaging comics. The two books of his that I’ve read and highly recommend are What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, and XKCD Volume 0. I also have Randall’s latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, on my bookshelf and hope to read it soon. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments.
TV shows and movies you might enjoy
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. This documentary series on Netflix introduces you to four people who are working super-hard in different parts of the world to prevent epidemics. Since the series was filmed some time ago, the episodes are focused not on the coronavirus but on influenza—which was widely regarded as the most likely culprit for a big outbreak. But Pandemic still gives you a sense of the inspiring work that heroic doctors, researchers, and aid workers are doing to prevent the very thing we’re all going through right now.
A few of the series that Melinda and I are keeping up with include A Million Little Things, This Is Us, and Ozark. And I’m planning to finally watch I, Claudius—a 1970s BBC series set during the Roman empire—after reading a rave review in The Economist. I’ve read a lot about the Roman times, but this series sounds like an interesting look at the era.
On the much more escapist front, a few weeks ago I re-watched one of my favorite movies, Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. It has lots of good surprises, so I don’t want to spoil the plot for you. Not a lot of people have heard of Spy Game, but I’ve probably seen it 12 times.
The wild card: online bridge
I’ve been playing bridge for years—Warren Buffett is my favorite partner. We don’t get together in person now that we’re sheltering in place, but we still play online. There are lots of great options out there, including this guide to learning the game, and the online platform that Warren and I play on, which is called Bridge Base. (I'll keep our screen names between us.) I got worried a couple months ago when their service briefly went down, but it was back up in no time. I was surprised at how relieved I was to see it running again.