From Tolstoyan Russia to the Mongolian steppe and summers on the Gulf of Finland… here are some of the books that I and others have been enjoying during lockdown.
How to describe the last five months? I’m not sure there’s much need to, because you probably understand: lots of time at home, changed plans, and uncertainty as to what’s next.
With a healthy family and not much financial impact, I’ve been on the incredibly fortunate end of the spectrum. But speaking of spectrums: I’ve briefly mentioned before that I’m autistic, and all of this uncertainty has been hard. As has being in a place where I struggle to keep a healthy routine. I think everyone has their own very unique reasons why this time has been challenging.
I was meant to be moving to Japan back in April to spend a year with my boyfriend who is doing postdoctoral research over in Nagoya. But that hasn’t happened, and we haven’t seen each other since November. So I’m still in my halfway house between living in Switzerland last year and moving this spring… living with my family in south-east England.
In all honesty, I’m not sure how I made it this long (is anyone’s family great enough to spend nine months with in adulthood?) But I’ve caught the whiff of a tipping point lately – I fell into burnout and some very mild depression the last month or so – and decided to give in and spend some of my savings on solitude.
I’ll be spending the whole of September in Edinburgh, and I am so looking forward to it. I’ve also been thinking about what I need in place now, then, and further into the winter as days get shorter and darker.
On the days when I’ve been feeling best during this strange time, I’ve had a routine, healthy food and movement, projects to focus on, and a good book by my side.
Read on for a handful of books I’ve been reading and some of the recommendations from blog readers I’ve received in my inbox lately.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
I read The Hidden Life of Trees to inspire some of the book I’ve been working on (called Mountain Song, it’ll be out in a few months). Peter Wohlleben’s writing is a stunning invitation to reevaluate our relationships with trees and, especially, the relationships of their own social network.
I adore books like this for getting out of my head and into the beauty of the world (another recommendation: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer).
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Atomic Habits has been my favourite practical book for staying happy and healthy while spending so much time inside.
I mentioned it in my list of books for creativity, but I’ve realised just how much I need systems and habits beyond productivity. I need them to feel balanced and healthy, which is a prerequisite for me to achieve anything.
Some of the systems I find most useful, inspired by ideas in Atomic Habits:
- Drinking two cups of water after waking up.
- Getting up from my desk at ten to the hour to move, stretch, or do some strength-based exercise (I learned to do pull-ups a few years back, and now being strong is part of my identity I don’t want to lose).
- Very rarely drinking coffee, and only small quantities if I’ll use the energy boost to focus on something important to me (like writing).
- Leaving the house for a walk in nature after finishing my work day.
- Enjoying quiet time in the evening to recalibrate, look at my priorities, doodle in my journal, and daydream about what I want to create, do, and be.
Recommendations from blog readers during lockdown
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
So many people have been reading War and Peace lately, which has been one of my favourite silver linings of lockdown. It’s been fantastic to see more people getting to Tolstoy Therapy via my articles about getting started with War and Peace.
It’s hard to imagine a better time to read it than now. I might plan my own reread later this month, so stay tuned via my newsletter if this happens. For now, here’s my comparison of the best translations of War and Peace.
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday by Rob Walker
Pick up a copy for 131 exercises to disconnect from distractions, get unstuck, and focus on the things and people that are most important to you.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The Summer Book is exactly my sort of book. Tove Jansson, most famous for the Moomins, distills the essence of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world into twenty-two vignettes.
This short novel tells the story of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland through sun and storms.
The reader who recommended me this, alongside mentioning some other books on this list and Richard Feynman’s writing which I love, also enjoyed some other books I’d shared in previous posts:
- The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim for dark Novembers and any other time you need to escape to a medieval castle for rent above a bay on the Italian Riviera, surrounded by wisteria.
- Cheryl Strayed’s books to encourage you to go out on a hike and see the world from a new perspective.
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl to give meaning to a difficult time and relieve anxiety.
- Educated by Tara Westover for a non-fiction read to devour over a few days.
- Playing Big by Tara Mohr to inspire you to create, share your voice, and be more visible.
Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
Kirinyaga is one of the few pieces of fiction on this list and not a typical book I’d pick up, so I’m extra glad for the recommendation in my inbox.
As one of science fiction’s master storytellers, Resnick weaves a haunting and compelling tale of a leader who guides his followers away from a polluted, overpopulated Kenya to the planet Kirinyaga. It resembles the Africa of his ancestors, and there he attempts to recreate the culture of the past and build his utopia.
Never Stop Walking: A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World by Christina Rickardsson
After growing up on the streets of São Paolo, a local agency took the questionable step of separating Christina Rickardsson (age eight) and her brother (less than two) from their mother and allowing a family in Sweden to adopt them. Never Stop Walking is her story of finding home across the world.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is another recommendation from a kind reader after my books for creativity post. Originally published in 1986, Natalie Goldberg brings together Zen meditation and writing to help writers to build their practice and get past their blocks to sit down and write.
On the Trail of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope
When you can’t explore the world, venture into the places that fascinate you with a book instead. I loved receiving this recommendation in my inbox last week, especially as I spent time in Mongolia last autumn on my journey from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
On the Trail of Genghis Khan is Tim Cope’s story of his journey by horseback across the entire length of the Eurasian steppe, from Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine to the Danube River in Hungary.
From horse-riding novice to 10,000 kilometres on horseback with his dog Tigon, Tim shares his three-year adventure fending off wolves, grappling with the steppe, and learning from the people he meets on his way.
What about you – what have you been reading that’s helped you through lockdown?
Let me know on Facebook or message firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your recommendations and pass them on to others in my next newsletter.