Fiction and classics to read under lockdown

A number of you asked me for a list of books to read during lockdown, mostly novels and fiction (like Plato, right?).  Here is a list I drew up maybe fifteen (?) years ago, with only slight revisions since.  I feel a current list might be quite different, but actually the early list is perhaps closer to most of your tastes?  Here it is.  It starts with classics and then goes through more recent novels maybe up through 2000 or so.


You are such a cultural conservative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But a bold Internet pioneer, offering PDF downloads with abandon.

The list is pretty much what you would expect if you asked a mainstream member of the English-speaking literary world (say, a member of the Booker Prize committee or an editor at the New York Times Book Review) 15 years ago to make a list of books and authors to read.


more like racist. no POC at all on that list!

Life is too short to worry about making sure the authors one reads are "diverse." In other spheres happy to support affirmative action, but not in leisure.

Haruki Murakami not a POC by your standards?

he is male and also straight.

plus there is no proof that he is anti-racist. that is what is important today.

You must have missed the part where Tyler says that this is his list. Since you are an arbiter of what is important these days, you should probably create your own blog and develop a list that would reflect your values and beliefs.

If it were easy to breakthrough white layers of privledge I would.

Tyler, thanks for sharing, as always. I'm sorry to say that I'm somewhat underwhelmed by this.

It's a very good list, and I'm being unfair malcontent.

It's a bit too reminiscent of other standard lists and I maybe had greater expectations and of there to be 'more', and maybe more esoteric and familiar.

Can you please follow up with a 21st century, a la a contemporary version, part2...

same here: only two Latin American authors? what gives?

Three, he listed Neruda as a poet to read.

This list is basically just the books white collar people were supposed to have been reading over the last 15 or 20 years. Very little of it surprised me.

Perhaps back then Tyler was less committed to contrarianism?

Been waiting for this list. Thanks Mr Cowen.

I’d add to contemporary/modern
Sartre: The Plague
Martin Amis: The Information
Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go
Marisha Pessi: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach

The Plague is by Camus.

I’d also recommend No Exit and Nausea, by Sartre.

Oops. Quite right. Shut in brain! Ty.

"No Exit" may be THE play for this age. "Hell is other people."

Don't you mean Camus's The Plague (La Peste)? Camus wouldn't like you mistaking him for JPS

Didn’t read the book, but saw the movie of Never Let Me Go. It was very sad and disturbing.

I'll throw in Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year". It's surprisingly hopeful, and it helps to remember that the English Civil War was recent history and that London burned to the ground the next year.

" the early list is perhaps closer to most of your tastes? "

I'd move Austen up into the canon.

No non-contemporary American novelists? The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

For SF, Dune for sure but I never bothered to read any of the sequels, I could see the diminishing marginal returns even in the first novel. Great setting and set-up but Frank Herbert had written himself into a corner by the end of the novel, with a silly knife-fight with that baron's son; that little political skirmish was an irrelevant sidebar now that Paul had god-like powers. One might as well write about what he had for breakfast that morning.

Paul and his followers against the ... IIRC they were called the Bene Gesserit? ... anyway those sorceress-like women, that would be a more titanic battle but I wasn't interested in that battle or the outcome. So I stopped reading at the end of the novel, well satisfied but also glad that I could stop there. The coups and duels were a waste of time given that the real power was with the Bene Gesserit and with Paul once he got empowered or divinizated or whatever.

A little too light on Brazilian literature, which is considered one of the best literatures in the world.

Clarice Lispector Her short stories are wise jewels.

Exactly. Although she was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic before the formation of the Soviet Union, she is surely one of the greatest Brazilian writers of all times.

I have heard that there is no real literature in Brazil. Books yes, but not literature.

Curious why you still recommend Fitzgerald's The Odyssey over your much lauded and discussed Wilson version from last year? Clearly both worth reading, but why the recommendation edge to Fitzgerald?

As I said, an old list, I would switch that one to Wilson (among others).

Just as a follow up on your much-deserved Chandler recommendation, here’s a recommendation for the order in which to read them:
1. The Big Sleep
2. Farewell My Lovely
3. The Little Sister
4. The Long Goodbye
And read the other three (The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, Playback) in no particular order.

Quality-wise, The Long Goodbye is one of the best American novels of the 20th century, with The Little Sister close behind, and The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely both very good. The other three are good but not up to the rest.

You’re welcome.

I've read and re-read Chandler but find Ross McDonald's Lew Archer series far superior. There is very little psychological nuance in Chandler which is his big failing.


For humorous crime fiction, the Dortmunder novels.

For literary class and plotting plus characterization excellence, Reginald Hill.

Westlake is a master, but I much prefer his Parker novels (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark) to the Dortmunder novels; JD and crew get old after a while. But if you haven’t checked out Westlake’s late-70s novel Kahawa, about a heist of an entire train full of coffee in Idi Amin’s Uganda, you most definitely should - much harder edged than the Dortmunder stuff.

But Chandler is on another plane entirely; The Long Goodbye in particular is a masterpiece - of any kind of fiction, not genre fiction.

If you’ve read and re-read Chandler and can find very little psychological nuance, then I am truly sorry for your loss. The mind reels.

No poet born later than 1904? I realize these are terrible times for poetry but how can you skip a entire century? Spanish and Irish poets are especially worth the effort.

Not going to pimp for anyone in particular and certainly not my namesake who was "a f**g who threw shit on the wall and wrote poetry", as someone famously said.

Paul Celan is one I would add.

There’s a poem of WH Auden that might make the list.
On this day tradition allots
to taking stock of our lives,
my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
Bacteria, Viruses,
Aerobics and Anaerobics:
A Very Happy New Year
to all for whom my ectoderm
is as Middle-Earth to me.

Apparently it's literature day -- MR posts this, Andrew Gelman's blog has a note about John Updike, and the meeting I had this morning with 15 or so faculty and graduate students started off asking everyone what they're reading. That last one was disappointing -- only a few of us, apparently, read books (fiction or nonfiction). Thankfully my research lab, a bunch of physicists, is more literate.

Several things I've read and enjoyed recently are perhaps pandemic-relevant, though I didn't choose them for that reason:

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (2016). A Russian aristocrat is placed under house arrest in a hotel when the revolution comes, spending the next four decades there. I read this before the current stay-at-home policies! It's charming.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah (2016). The comedian’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during the end of Apartheid and the time shortly after. I've never watched Trevor Noah, and I had no idea what to expect. The book is excellent -- witty and warm. The sheer density of experiences -- wonderful, horrible, and simply bizarre -- packed into the first two decades of Noah's life is amazing. There's nothing particularly pandemic-related about it, but it reminds me how the present scale of suffering is really so small compared to so much that people live through.

Speaking of which, I read O'Henry's "The Last Leaf" to my ten year old. I had forgotten that it's about a young woman dying from a respiratory illness! These used to be so common. (How much of the general public realizes this?)

It's not lockdown.



Not for the illegal immigrants who don’t qualify for TrumpBux or unemployment cash.

Where is Biden? Where is Warren and Sanders?

Trump will just keep the illegals employed at his resort and claim that he gets a loan because he did not lay anyone off.

Neil Stephenson certainly needs to be on this list. Go long. The Baroque Cycle, all of it. Cryptonomicon. REAMDE. Those are my favorites.

Anathem, followed by Cryptonomicon, then REAMDE.

Anathemata (David Jones)?

Thanks! Delighted to see Peter Hoeg on the list, though I think "Bordeliners" is a much more intersting work of his. Maybe not in terms of classical narrative aspects (suspense, action, cool protagonists), but in the painful clarity of its ideas in connection to the prose.

Would add plays from Sartre, which I think are especially relevant in times of crisis as many of them emphasize the fact that people can only be measured against their actions and less their (pretended) intentions.

And: Is there a reason why Elena Ferrante is not on the list? Im just re-reading the Neapolitan Quartet and am again amazed by the in-depth analyisis of friendship, the (a)politican human in society, the quality of character development and what it inspires to think me about as a result.

Johannes Coetzee, really? Not John?
It's impossible not to include Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.
Also, if there is only one Nabokov novel, why Pale Fire rather than Ada or Lolita?

For the adventurous: Persian classical literature (~900-1500 CE) is perhaps the least known of the great world literatures. You want adventure? Sufi thought? Romance? Deep mystical insight? Transcendent love? It's all there. (I have read much of it in the original and taught some of it in translation. There are few good translations, though, and many that are extremely poor and sometimes not even well-connected to the original text.) The national epic by Ferdowsi, "The Shahnameh," is amazing; I prefer the >100-year-old translation by the Brothers Warner, available online. Dick Davis is one of the best modern translators. See his "Vis and Ramin," by Gorgani, his translations of Hafez, and his "Conference of the Birds," by Attar. Read "Leila and Majnun," by Nezami (and anything else of his that becomes available in a decent translation; his greatest is "Shirin and Khosrow, but there is no translation in English). And, do any of you remember Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam, parts of which everyone knew by heart until a couple of decades ago?

Is by any chance some of your courses available on video online?

No, but Dick Davis has several lectures on YouTube. I think most of them were before specialists, so I don't know how much they'd mean to someone not already familiar with such things, but he's a good speaker.

What? No Nabokov?

+1 I hear that Lolita is a classic, though some of us like to live it rather than read it.

I liked TC's classical list, I enjoyed Fowles "The Magus" (setting was in Greece) and thought the ambiguous ending was good, later made into a movie, "The Game". I read on Wikipedia a summary of: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and she really did a great job at forecasting the future (both the idea of science as evil genie out of the bottle, and, Arctic exploration, ahead of their times). Good list, though it reminds me of the definition of a classic by Mark Twain (something recommended but you'll never read, I mean I read Greek but would never read anything by the ancient Greek writers except in a historical survey from a secondary source).

+ 1 for Magus and other books of Fowles.
How come you are not canvassing for Kazantzakis, one of my favorite authors?

"The Collector" provided insights into the minds of disturbed male sex offenders (and serial killers?) long before they made the front pages.
"Daniel Martin" is brilliant in my opinion, and more interesting than "The French Lieutenant's Woman" dealing with subjects no one else was thinking about when written,

Yeah I only read the Magus since the others I found too disturbing. I also liked Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" and the short story "The Open Boat", which captures emergencies perfectly IMO. I always thought Nikos Kazantzakis a lightweight and have not read him, but I might have to revise my opinion of him upwards.

Pale Fire is listed.

I gather that you are planning on a long lockdown.

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead should be there certainly.
I would take any of Austen's first four books over Persuasion
Nabokov's Pale Fire is a delightful jigsaw puzzle of a novel, if one is willing to put forth the effort to dig through the appendix. Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, or Bend Sinister require less effort to enjoy. Pnin should amuse professors.

Why not some Chinese fiction courtesy the bongs whose wives would indulge in translation?

Nice list.

There's a Scottish-Canadian novelist, Eric McCormack, who's an excellent but terribly underappreciated storyteller. I think gothic absurdism is the best way to describe his work.

He's written a number of smart page-turners, including The Mysterium, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and The Dutch Wife. Fun, imaginative work, with finely crafted prose. Highly recommended.

No Kazantzakis, Hermann Hesse, Graham Greene ?

On recommendation of my wife, I would suggest anti-literature. In the Maghrebin vein. Not the ones à la Slimani who comes from the protectorat de france and so composes 'real' literature to win the non-monetised goncourt.

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov is not on the reading list of an eminent economist? Curious. Not an economist, but always one of my favorite reads, even though the science/technology is dated.

I just finished rereading the three original novels, plus Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, none of which I’d read in 25+ years. I won’t be doing that again; some moments, but few and far between for me. The End of Eternity is Asimov’s masterpiece to me.

The richest man in France who was planning to put his employees on state aid can monetise the goncourt in a suitcase.

I would recommend the entire "Divine Comedy" not just "Inferno."

Don't stop in Hell. As Churchill put it, if you find yourself in Hell, keep going. Dante kept going.

Those sheltering in place might want to think of themselves in Purgatory rather than Hell. THey want to think salvation is attainable.

Speaking of Churchill, his The River War is a genuine classic that proves that one of the world's best polo players and cavalrymen was also a great writer.

You forgot about his gendre - the free guy - really cheap. Now france has a new one - bong de france.

St. Augustine, Confessions
Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus (2012)
No Dostoevsky? Pity!

A fascinating biography of an icon, musical history, survey of world history as well as a life lived with ethical beliefs (1876 - 1973). Pablo Casals: A Biography, Kirk, H. L. free online read at

As a young artist he had benefactors like the Queen of Spain and friends of Beethoven, reinvented Bach, was a contemporary of all the great French, German, Spanish and English composers (with opinions on many), never forgot his Catalonian heritage, activated for world peace and was conducting at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont at age 90.

Casals married a 20 year old at the age of 80. That was not kind.

The rich little fellow (no, he was never poor) supported the pro-Soviet Union side in the Spanish civil war, and while he claimed to be against totalitarianism of all kinds, it is not clear that the little man ever really expressing any repentance for his part in supporting the evils massacres that were carried out by those he claimed to admire. Until he was old, however, he was full of hatred, though, for the other side.

Not convinced he even rose to the level of a decent human being.

He was a bad selfish man, and you know it.

Sure he was close to competent at playing the cello.

Trust me, I know what cello music sounds like at its best, and the sad little man did not.

T.H. White (Terence, not Theodore)


Classics: Juvenal/Satires, almost anything by Lucian of Samosata.

Fiction: Pantheon Books has a rewarding series, its Fairy Tale and Folklore Library. I vouch for Japanese Tales, ed. and tr. by Royall Tyler, which includes over 200 selections from almost twenty medieval anthologies, including a handful of tales adapted in the 20th cent. by R. Akutagawa. (Russian Fairy Tales by Alexander Afannas'ev is the only other one in the Pantheon series I've looked through.)

Rabelais/Gargantua and Pantagruel.

John Gay/The Beggar's Opera.

Jan Potocki/The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (Maclean tr., if still in print.)

Stendhal/The Charterhouse of Parma and/or The Red and the Black.

Maupassant/any collection/transl. of his short stories.

Alfred Jarry/The UBU Plays (Connelly and Taylor tr.)

Ryunosuke Akutagawa/stories and tales, any ed. you can find (criminal that the complete works of Akutagawa seem not to've appeared yet in English.)

Karel Capek/anything you can find (still seems highly underrated among Anglophones considering his ample accomplishments).

Mikhail Bulgakov/The White Guard, Heart of a Dog, The Fatal Eggs. (And The Master and Margarita, Burgin & O'Connor tr.)

Flannery O'Connor/Complete Stories.

Eugene Ionesco/maybe start with the Grove Pr. ed. of The Bald Soprano & Other Plays, Donald Allen, tr.)

strannikov/flash fiction (online)

Poetry: Francois Villon/Complete Works (I'm partial to the David Georgi tr. [informative notes section, too] but haven't yet read that by Galway Kinnell.)

Baudelaire/Flowers of Evil (NDP ed., w/trs. by various hands), Paris Spleen (the NDP ed., tr. Louise Varese.)

Dylan Thomas/Collected Poems or The Poems of Dylan Thomas.

David Jones/In Parenthesis (NYRB ed. A demanding read, worth every minute.)

Richard Hugo/The Triggering Town (lectures/essays on poetry).

Seamus Heaney/Death of a Naturalist, Station Island.

Although I've read of lot of those books, not sure I would recommend most of those classics, at least - looks like a good list of books to have read, not a list of good books to read.

Personally, I just reread Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut. Apocalyptic, but a quick light read that helps put life (and these times) in perspective.

"-looks like a good list of books to have read, not a list of good books to read."

Amen, brother.

Thank you for sharing. In recent weeks, I've been thinking a lot about... Oryx and Crake/ Year of the Flood, by Atwood. 1491, by Mann. The Peripheral/ Agency, by Gibson. Girlfriend in a Coma, by Coupland. The Pianist, by Szpilman. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Clarke. The Chronoliths, by Wilson. Anathem and Quicksilver, by Stephenson. Hatchet, by Paulson. Give People Money, by Lowrey. The Years of Rice and Salt, by KSR. Take care.

Beowulf -Heaney
along with
Grendel -Gardner

How is it to read Tristam Shandy? Is an annotated, footnoted version necessary, and if so, which one? Is it a fun read or a good-for-you slog?

I found it to be a fun slog. That is, at any given time while reading it, I was enjoying it, but, whenever I wasn't reading it, I sort of wondered why I had bothered. I assume that there was more in there, but never quite got that more. I never did manage to finish.

Try Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is similar, but might feel like there is more of a payoff.

Both books might have been more fun if I had been stoned.

Science fiction: Collected stories of Arthur Clarke
Economics novels: the series by Marshall Jevons
Lighter stuff: Asterix comics ; Obelix &Co has plenty of economics

Philosophy: Confessions of a Philosopher, History of Philosophy and Men of Ideas by Bryan Maggie. He is philosophy's Heilbroner.

"Economics novels: the series by Marshall Jevons"

Yes, especially _The Fatal Equilibrium_. At the low end, I didn't much like _Murder at the Margin_.

+The Adventures of Augie March, The Coup, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, The Burn, On the Black Hill, My Secret History.

And if you're reading Norman Mailer, read Harlot's Ghost.

I'm saving my brain cells to fight off coronavirus, so I'm going for comfort reading. For me, that's old Perry Mason novels, possibly even the one with the mutant gorillas. (I didn't make that up.)

Thanks! Please step back and appreciate the man's guidance on a good reading list...not a solve the world's problems and ensure racial diversity amongst the world's 7.5 billion people.

Into this august company, I'm going to make a couple of fun suggestions:

Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series. Duffy is a Catholic detective inspector in the Royal Ulster constabulary during the Troubles. McKinty has a great sense of humor, and loves to insert musical references into his stories, from opera to punk. Apocalyptic urban landscape, and great characters. What's not to like? The first in the series is The Cold, Cold Ground (each book is named after a Tom Waits song).

William Golding's The Inheritors. Tremendously good, with one of the most memorable endings I've ever read. Apocalypse for the Neanderthal.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. In this time of social distancing, the story of a vagabond living on the Tennessee River is calling me for a reread.

Thanks to all for posting. I will be referring to this for future reading ideas.

See above

As someone who spent a lot of time in solitary (you think this is bad, try spending a few months or years in real lockdown!) my favorites were those fun classics where you experienced overcoming-Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Once I got out I read the more contemporary "A General Theory of Oblivion" and feel that could be especially appropriate to our current situation

Great list, but I'm surprised to not see Orwell's 1984.

Cormac McCarthy is an embarrassment to literature. He's simply a bad writer and thankfully will be forgotten by the time effective vaccines for mutant viruses are common.

On the other hand, there are some very good Southern Gothic writers that don't receive the attention they deserve despite the fact that they make up America's most unique and interesting genre. In addition to celebrated figures like Flannery O'Connor, there's Calder Willingham, Jr., Faulkner, James Dickey, Erskine Caldwell, MacKinlay Kantor, and the amazing Harry Crews, all much superior to McCarthy. Good time to read them before all their books are pulped up for filler in domestic catfish food.

Ah yes, the oft-overlooked faulkner...wait, what?

Truman Capote is under-rated.

Ty, have you read Don Delillo? Try him out, if not.


Gustave Flaubert --Madame Bovary
Charles Dickens--Bleak House
Tolstoy-- Anna Karenin
Anthony Trollope--Chronicles of Barsetshire
Franz Kafka--Metamorphosis
James Joyce--Dubliners
Andrei Bely--Petersburg
Ernest Hemingway--The Old Man and the Sea
Jorge Luis Borges

For more modern fiction,

William Styron--Sophie's Choice
Malcom Lowry--Under the Volcano

I'm pleased to see Cowen not pushing that banal non-entity, fake and fraud Uwe Knausgard who should remain in permanent isolation. You have better things to do with your time.

Why such a strong opinion on Knausgård? This list is outdated, Tyler has had him on. If I were to guess, both Knausgård and Ferrante would make his contemporary list now.

Many of the reasons for that "strong opinon" are explained here:

Another good read for the lockdown and absolutely free!

Alas, your guess may well be correct.

People who only read the Inferno and skip the Purgatorio and Paradiso don't get the whole story. Purgatorio is very interesting, Paradiso takes some work, but there are some great politics in there too.

Death in Venice is a great novella. It can also be read as a Gothic horror story and then everything fits too :-)

Agree with Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor.

What is lacking:

Dino Buzzati
Julien Gracq
Petr Handke
Thomas Ligotti

And a great writer of fun, deep, clever and moralistic stories. Appreciated by Heidegger:

Johann Peter Hebel - Calendar stories - 1807

Given the direction this is heading it’s time for:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

3 novels by Samuel Beckett. hunger by hamsun

Jose Saramango's
Death with Interruptions
....Highly Recommended...
Speak to our times

Excellent list! And you know it's diverse cuz comments range from WOKE! to RACIST! Anyway, this is just a starter pack.

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