Words at Play

M-W Picks: Books for When You're Hunkered Down

You too can read like a dictionary staffer.


As we all navigate uncharted territory in a time of crisis and uncertainty, the importance of reading—for both sanctuary and human connection—has perhaps never been clearer. Like many of you, we are a community of bookworms at Merriam-Webster, so we asked around to find what our staffers are currently reading, what we’re looking forward to, and what we love. It’s our hope that these picks will help bring a bit of joy to your time in quarantine.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
As a working mom with two kids (ages 3 and 8) now home full-time, my pleasure reading is limited to that blessed five minutes between when I climb into bed and when sleep refuses to be delayed any longer. In that little window I'm deeply enjoying Jacqueline Woodson's 2014 Brown Girl Dreaming, and the way each little poem-chapter offers an intimate view into the author's childhood as an African-American girl in the 1960s and 1970s.

Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion
Also on my bedside table is a slim volume recently published by Orion Magazine. Earthly Love is an anthology of poetry and prose with each entry a sweet, if often sweetly melancholy, morsel. Its subtitle, Stories of Intimacy and Devotion, is apt: the pieces are about intimacy between people and between people and the Earth, and devotion to the same. From Barry Lopez's foreword to an essay by Laurel Nakanishi to a poem by Ellen Bass, I've found a kind of comfort in everything I've read so far.


Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson
This is a psychological thriller about a young woman from London who decides to trade apartments with a distant cousin in Boston. When she arrives at her cousin's apartment building, she discovers his neighbor has been murdered. There are some huge and unexpected plot twists that kept me completely hooked until the end. Without giving away anything, I'll just say this book is super murdery, and if that's your thing, I can’t recommend it enough.

The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent
This is the story of two girls who have been raised in a remote cabin in the woods with no contact with the outside world. Their mother leaves one day to take their younger sister to a doctor, but she never returns. It is also the story of a woman with a traumatic past who suspects her husband is having an affair. She begins to investigate and discovers things are not at all what they seem.

The Deep, Deep Snow by Brian Freeman
A 10-year-old boy goes missing in a small town and everyone comes together to search for him. But when they find nothing, and it seems several locals are lying about what they know, the case goes cold. Ten years later, a new clue surfaces and as local law enforcement and the FBI begin to piece things together, they find that the truth of what happened is much more complicated than they could have guessed. The book is really well-written and enjoyable from the first page.


My recent habit, buoyed by the reality that there is little else to do, is turning my attention to books and their film adaptions. This allows me to feel less guilty sitting in front of the television when I watch the movie (always after reading the book of course).

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I reread this book after recently attending the touring musical, back when such things were happening. As an epistolary novel, it is fascinating to follow the gradual change in language and sentence structure of Celie’s letters, which mirrors the broadening of her life experience. And the friendships are amazing, and stories about friendship are needed in this time of self-isolation.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Lauren Hillenbrand
The perfect (and true) story on an underdog. A horse that likes nothing more than to laze under a tree and eat everything in sight, becomes a record-breaking champion--what’s not to like? The book provides a whole lot of history as well, but the inspirational impact of the story stands out.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Written when Thompson was only 22, I love the youthful energy of this book. There is pure escapism in following along with all sorts of drunken adventure on a Caribbean island, but as with every Thompson book there is much more under the surface. And the writing is great, like this final sentence: “Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.”


Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
For my money, there is no writer who makes me laugh, cringe, and feel more than Samantha Irby. Her new essay collection Wow, No Thank You. is a masterclass in self-deprecation, slyly tackling issues like depression, chronic illness, and settling down in stories that are somehow both completely singular and relatable on a molecular level. She’s a national treasure.

Hillbilly Hustle by Wesley Browne
I’m a sucker for Appalachian noir and hard-boiled fiction, so Wesley Browne’s Hillbilly Hustle was a must-read. The premise is simple—a cash-strapped Lebowski-esque pizza shop owner gets caught up with the wrong dudes—but what really caught me was the witty, suspenseful writing that kept me so engrossed I read it in a day. It’s the Kentucky slacker version of Uncut Gems.

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
Field hockey. Witchcraft. The 80s. We Ride Upon Sticks has it all. Set in Danvers, Massachusetts (in 1692 the site of Salem Village), it follows the 1989 Danvers High field hockey team as they call upon their town’s history and a mysterious dark power (channeled through a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover, of course) to propel them to victory. This book is a delightful ode to the 1980s and the everlasting power of teenage girls.

While we’re at it, here are a few books I haven’t read yet but are on my nightstand: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, and The Return by Rachel Harrison.


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
This novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2018, and feels relevant at time when the specter of contagion casts a shadow over us and fear and uncertainty inflame our discourse. The disease in this book is AIDS, and the story concerns its impact on Chicago’s gay community in the 1980s, as well as its lasting impact on the survivors of that community thirty years later.

At the center of the story is Yale Tishman, a young gallery worker who is close to making a major advance in his career by acquiring a valuable collection of art from an elderly, eccentric prospective donor. Yale’s friend Nico has just died of AIDS-related illness, and other friends within their circle are becoming infected. Yale’s strongest support comes from Nico’s younger sister, Fiona; in an interwoven narrative, we follow Fiona thirty years later as she tracks down her estranged daughter in Paris.

The friendships here are some of the most believably rendered I’ve read in fiction; it is hard not to grow close to the characters as they seek hope and forgiveness against a climate of dread and judgment, and love and redemption look to triumph over fear.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
I keep returning to this novel just to read a random passage. The sentences are tight but not overwritten, at times barely murmuring, precise as they need to be but evoking a great deal of urban noise in the background.

An undocumented Uighur kitchen worker and an American Iraq War veteran just returned from his third tour fall into an unlikely romance in Queens. She lives with the perpetual threat of being captured and deported; he battles the demons of alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, his brain rattled by the memory of war and the shelling of his friend. As Zou Lei and Skinner find comfort with each other in the loud and daunting city, and find a shared routine in their conversations and workout regimens, new demons threaten to overtake them. This book is a miracle about finding your way in chaotic America.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
When I read this book for the first time, I was a high schooler laid up with my own serious illness, so perhaps I have always associated it with infirmity. I decided to read it again last year, before the thought of being confined against a scourge became reality. Set in Australia after a nuclear war has eradicated the entire Northern Hemisphere, it tells the story of a group of people living out their final weeks as a cloud of nuclear fallout approaches.

What is striking about this book is how the characters strive to live as though things are normal. Even as fate comes knocking, there are attempts to cultivate relationships, and efforts to live in the hopes of seeing lost loved ones who are almost certainly dead. The story reaches a mood of strange and patient optimism even in the face of annihilation.


William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Mean Girls by Ian Doescher
If you’re looking for something light to take your mind off things, try William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Mean Girls, which reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon called “a hilarious closet drama composed in the style of the Bard.” Author Ian Doescher explains in the afterward, “William Shakespeare’s female characters were never as strong as those of Tina Fey’s creation, which is why I had so much fun giving the Bard a dose of feminism.” Even more fun for English majors: Doescher specifically pairs each major female character with a Shakespearean counterpart, including aligning Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey’s character in the movie) and Tatania, the majestic fairy queen from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Circe by Madeline Miller
A more immersive favorite from my recent reading: Circe, by Madeline Miller. It’s mythology meets #MeToo, turning the focus of these well-worn stories to the evolution of a woman finding her strength against formidable odds. Ms. Miller’s attention to detail is pitch-perfect, and her prose rolls and resonates like poetry. I didn’t want to put it down.

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Even though my new book list is long, I do have a habit of rereading books from time to time, especially those I read in my teens and early twenties. I obviously have a different perspective now, and it’s fascinating how that can change the perception of the story, characters, outcomes, everything. One I’m anxious to return to is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Her writing is lush and gorgeous (and has been known to send me to the dictionary from time to time), and the story is so focused on language and writing.

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