A treasury of books to help you stay sane and thrive during the coronavirus pandemic
So you’re cooped up at home. Hopefully with people you like, but more likely with family members. You can’t go anywhere, including work, which means you may or may not be making money. Your gym is closed, so there goes that stress-management outlet. On top of that, stores seem to be chronically out of toilet paper.
Oh, and there’s this pandemic raging outside that has already infected people you know. And is out to get you, too.
If you’re feeling distressed, lonely, confused, bewildered, angry, or just plain exasperated, you are not alone. And I’ve got a list of books that can take you to a much better place. That place is actually remarkably similar to the spot where you are right now, just with a slightly different, more resilient perspective.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön (ebook, print, & audiobook). “I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: ‘Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.’ Somehow, even before I heard the Buddhist teachings, I knew that this was the spirit of true awakening. It was all about letting go of everything.” Chödrön points out that all times are difficult times, and things are always falling apart. Groundlessness is the essential feature of existence. So to the extent that we choose to “lean into the sharp points” of life instead of running away or seeking comfort, we become resilient. Blissfully short, I hand this one out to friends like candy, and re-read it at least once a year.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach (ebook, print & audiobook).”Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.” What people may not know about Brach, a well-regarded Buddhist teacher and psychologist, is the chronic disease that keeps her in a state of constant bodily pain. This may be why people experiencing hardship resonate so deeply with her writing. Think of this as a well of compassion you can come back to drink from regularly.
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle (ebook, print & audiobook). This is spiritual balm in book form. You may think you already know what’s in it, either because you’ve seen it everywhere (Oprah!) or you’ve read it. And you would be wrong, because this is one of those books that changes every time you read it. Not interested in being spiritually enlightened? No problem — the book is still super useful. I’ve come back to this one several times during personal crises.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (ebook, print and audiobook). “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A classic worth reading and re-reading.
The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Dr Edith Eva Eger (ebook, print and audiobook). “If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn’t say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I’ve known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger. We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.”
Edith Eva Eger was interned at Auschwitz (spoiler alert: she survives). She was forced to dance for Josef Mengele, which is why some foreign editions of the book are called The Ballerina of Auschwitz.
After many other harrowing incidents, Eger makes it to the US, where she ends up rebuilding her life from scratch twice. Then she goes to college at 32, finishes her PhD at 50, and becomes a world-renowned psychologist. Mentored by Dr Viktor Frankl himself, she publishes this remarkable book at 90. This is a story of many things — trauma, survival, luck, resilience, regret, guilt, triumph — that is as uplifting as it is wise. Read it to live a few extra lifetimes through Dr Eger, and check out her YouTube videos too.
Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Richard Preston (ebook, print and audiobook). This is an astonishing book. The reporting, the writing, the pacing, the compassion, the scientific accuracy are world-class. It reads like a thriller, except that all the characters are real and everything actually happened.
The story of the outbreak of Ebola virus is one that not enough people (i.e. less than 100% of the population) are familiar with, presumably because it happened over there, to those people. Now it’s become clearer that in an interconnected world, there is no over there and those people — the whole planet is your backyard. Preston tells the story of how a virus can jump from animals to humans, and then spread like — well, like a really contagious virus. Aided by poor sanitation, local custom and superstition, mistrust, institutional inertia, and lack of data on a new pathogen, Ebola cut a swath of death and terror through Africa. But the coordinated courage of frontline medical workers (many of whom sacrificed their lives), public health officials, and top-notch scientists eventually contained the contagion.
COVID-19 does has neither the contagion profile nor the 80% fatality rate of Ebola. But this book’s an excellent case study of what happens when a new zoonotic disease rips through an immunologically naïve population. You’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on with corona virus, and thank your lucky stars that it ain’t nearly as bad as it could be.
An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System — A Tale in Four Lives, by Matt Richtel (ebook, print and audiobook). Every day, billions of malign agents are trying to kill you, and fail only because your immune system is on guard. How to recognize and ward off the infinite pathogens that could invade and lay you low? How to tell invaders from self? And how to put the brakes on itself when it’s in full defense mode?
The inner workings the immune system should make you gasp at something so insanely intricate and effective. Now is a good time to get acquainted with the system that saves our asses every minute of every day of our lives.
Richtel compellingly interweaves the science and history of immunology into the lives of four patients, each dealing with different aspects of immune function & dysfunction: overreaction, underreaction, recognizing self as enemy, recognizing enemy as self, and much more.
It’s an ambitious premise, and he pulls it off magnificently; I read the whole thing in one sitting. What makes the book supremely compelling is the vivid story of his childhood friend Jason’s cancer treatment. The result is an unusually well-rounded psychological portrait of a patient, along with the tortuous course of his treatment that reads like a detective story. These are poignant tales; I found myself crying (and laughing) multiple times.
Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, by Paul A. Offit, M.D. (ebook & print). Dr Maurice Hilleman arguably had the greatest positive influence on human health in the history of the world. By number of human lives saved, he’s the #1 scientist of the 20th century, hands down. Yet hardly anyone knows his name.
Through ingenuity, drive, and sheer chutzpah, he developed not one, not two, but NINE modern vaccines: to prevent measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, Hep A, Hep B, pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Most remain in use to this day, and have collectively prevented billions of cases of disease and death. Crazy thing is even I had never heard of him even though I went to med school — a crime!
Dr Paul Offit, himself a prominent vaccinologist, does a fantastic job of telling the story of the poor orphan from seriously hardscrabble Montana beginnings. Read it not just for a gripping story of the triumph of 20th century medicine and one helluva mensch, but also to appreciate the gargantuan boon that vaccines are: where they come from, how they’re made, how they work, and how many lives they save. Get one copy for yourself, and another for your favorite anti-vaxxer friend. Required reading for all humans who dislike dying of preventable disease.
Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, by Susan David (ebook, print & audiobook). Full of practical, immediately usable strategies, this gem of a book will keep you in good stead no matter what’s happening in your life, especially in time of crisis. Her TED talk based on Emotional Agility is supremely moving and uplifting, with 6.7 million views as of this writing. She also has a March 2020 45min interview with Chris Anderson, the director of TED, on specific strategies for mentally coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Great Courses by the Teaching Company. What happens when you go to universities, cherry-pick their top-rated professors, and make audio and video courses based on what they teach best? The Great Courses, that’s what: a candy-store of classes on everything from Astronomy and Archeology to Roman history, Physics, Psychology, Photography, Secret Societies and Zoology. At $20/month for access to their entire catalog, there are few deals in this world that make me happier. Free to join for the first month.
The breadth of knowledge and richness of choice makes it hard to find a good place to start. As a consumer of dozens of their courses over the past 20 years, I suggest you start with the music courses of Professor Robert Greenberg, quite possibly the greatest lecturer alive. The breadth of knowledge and wit of the man is breathtaking. Start with his course on opera or Bach and the High Baroque. Right now I’m really enjoying Music and the Brain, with Aniruddh Patel, and Meteorology: An Introduction to the Wonders of the Weather with Robert Fovell.
Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. is the closest thing we have to an American Buddha. In the first hour of this interview with Tim Ferriss, he shares strategies for mental resilience and reducing anxiety, drawn from his 40+ years of experience as a meditation teacher and psychologist. All his books are fabulous, too.
Happiness Engineering for Trying Times, by yours truly Dr Ali Binazir. Robust relationships. Meaningful work. Sound sleep. Mental Fitness. Physical Fitness. The Five Pillars of Human Thriving are always important, but perhaps never more so than when you’re locked down at home for weeks. Here are some principles & practices for staying sane, healthy & productive. Download my 56min seminar here.