McGill Reads: COVID-19 edition

Members of the McGill community offer their selections for great books to curl up with in these curious times of self isolation and social distancing
Self Portrait, Reading on a Blanket on the Grass – Roderic O’Conor

In these anxious times of self-isolation and social distancing, many of us are turning to an old friend for comfort: the book. Few activities seem more perfectly suited to helping us weather the COVID-19 pandemic than reading. You read by yourself, or, at most, you read to your children. You read to explore and enjoy other worlds while sitting tight in your favourite chair.

The McGill Reads series celebrates this solitary endeavour but with a more communal focus. We pass on our favourite titles, encouraging others to share in our experiences. Just another slender thread that helps tie us together.

Enjoy and stay safe!


Donna che legge – Giola Gandini (1938)

I’m hoping I’m not too late for this! I’m not staying at my home, which means that I don’t have access to my physical books,” writes Torsten Bernhardt, Course Administrator and Pedagogical Developer in the Department of Biology.

“My e-reader was light enough to make the trip, though, and right now I’m reading The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling because steampunk escapism seems like a good choice,” says Bernhardt, who is also reading the Grace Jones autobiography, because “I’m hoping it will be suitably surreal for these surreal times.”

“Being in a home with both an 11-year old and a 15-year old means that I’m likely going to have to give in and read some Rick Riordan or some such, but if I manage to escape the world of young adult fiction the snippets of George Orwell’s political writing that I’ve come across have been good enough that I’ll try to read bigger chunks of it; he has a lot to say about today’s world.”


Dasha Sandra, a graduate student in Neuroscience, recommends Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts, “a book that I read and found comforting during these times,” she says


Kendra Gray plans on reading The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.  “The book explores how humans and our built infrastructure have impacted the earth – and what would happen if we disappeared,” writes the Internships Officer in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Office of Student Academic Services. “The current public health situation has, in some cases, resulted in cleaner air and water as industry has temporarily shut down. I’m interested in further exploring a hypothetical situation where we simply disappear.”

Gray is also rereading Leo Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace. “I don’t usually reread books, but there is so much in it,” says Gray. “The question of whether history (or events) is created by leaders or instead a series of small circumstances seems relevant given the current pandemic.”


Woman Reading by a Window – Gari Melchers (1905)

“Strangely enough, I am finding it harder to find the time to read these days because my commute is only from my kitchen to my living room every morning, rather than a long walk and train ride,” writes Jim Nicell, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, and a of the legends of the McGill reads series. “That being said, I always have a list of books to tackle in the weeks ahead.”

“A few days ago, I began reading The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. David,” says Nicell. “Once, I’m done this wonderful book, I’ll probably reach for SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard. And, after this, I will tackle The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, by Max Boot.


Mark Sorin, in his first year of the MD-PhD program is reading Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Next on tap, Sorin says he will tackle The Citadel, by A.J. Cronin, and The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


“I am reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta which gives a good picture of the country during WW II which received 15,000 tonnes of bombs by 1942 making it the most bombed place on earth,” writes Karen Sciortino, Senior Admissions Officer, Enrolment Services.

“I’m also slowly going through Jordan Ellenberg’s interesting book, How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which is a tour of mathematical thought and a guide to becoming a better thinker,” she says. “Next up will likely be Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali.”


Old Man Reading Book –Ernst Agerbeek

William Bielaskie is no stranger to the printed word. The Documentation Technician in McGill Library’s Inter-Library Loans has just finished Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and is now reading A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry.


Caitlin MacDougall is revered by the McGill Reads team for having read or listened to 76 books in 2019.  Has she slowed down? Not a chance.

“I am working on my 2020 reading challenge on Goodreads with the goal of reading 85 books this year. I am currently ahead of schedule, having read 25 since January 1 (audiobooks, ebooks and physical books),” writes the Liaison Officer in the Farm Management and Technology Program at Mac Campus.

“Since we’ve moved to remote working I have been trying to get through a selection of TBR (to-be-read) books as a challenge with some friends; you know, the books you buy or borrow with good intentions but never seem to get to reading,” she says. “Of my five TBR challenge books, I have finished The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne; started Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen; and still have to read Villette, by Charlotte Brontë; Survival of the Sickest, by Dr. Sharon Moalem with Jonathan Prince; and The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler.”

“But I’ve also been listening to lots of audiobooks from the McGill Library while going on walks to enjoy the spring air,” she says. “Bill Bryson (as always) has an interesting read in The Body: A Guide for Occupants – there’s even a bit about pandemics and epidemics in there, so very relevant. But he gives you some facts about where different diseases or functions of the body were discovered, a bit about different scientists, while also explaining in layman’s terms how everything works.”

MacDougall has also finished Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward; Normal People, by Sally Rooney; and “a really touching book by Cheryl Strayed called Tiny Beautiful Things, a curated collection of letters and responses to the Dear Sugar column which she wrote,” she says.  “The message of that book is to express extreme compassion for all people, because you don’t know where they’re coming from or what they’re going through, which feels very appropriate these days. Definitely one of my favourites so far this year.”


Boy Reading – Samuel John Peploe (1921)

“I wish I have more time for reading, but I am still in fast-lane mode trying to address all the challenges arising from our current situation,” writes Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and regular contributor to McGill Reads. “That said, there are always the 10 minutes before I fall asleep that are reserved for reading, and here is my current page turner. Ironically it fits our current and daily obsession with numbers. Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers, by Amir D. Aczel.”


Crystal Noronha, Graduate Studies Officer in the Faculty of Dentistry, opens her email with “Hope you are safe!” – echoing a sentiment of the majority of our contributors. Noronha’s list includes John Scalzi’s Lock In and Makeup Tips from Auschwitz, by Tommy Schnurmacher.


Victor Chisholm, a long-time supporter and contributor to the McGill Reads series, is currently A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. “I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg, and was easily able to transfer it to my Kobo,” says the Student Affairs Administrator in the Faculty of Science.

“What I can suggest that is apropos to the current time: Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, both of which relate to illness and isolation.”


“I just finished reading The Lucky One, by Nicholas Sparks, an easy fiction to read, nothing taxing,” writes regular contributor Abida Subhan, from the Department of Animal Science and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. “I randomly found books I have not yet read around my home. The next book I am going to read is A Princess Remembers written by the ‘Princesss’  herself, Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi. I picked up this book on one of my trips to India.”


Portrait of a Young Woman Reading – Gabriel Ferrier

Chris Buddle, Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs), is another McGill Reads stalwart, renowned for his ambitious to-read lists.

“I’ve found reading these days to be a bit challenging, and finding the focus to get into books has been tough,” writes Buddle. “So, many of the books I’ve been picking up have been very slow reads. Here they are:

“I’m currently reading Michael Palin’s book Erebus, which is a narrative about a rather magnificent boat – one that traveled to the Antarctic and the Arctic, exploring and charting new (to Europeans) parts of the world in the mid 19th Century. Although the Erebus met a tragic fate in the end, its story is incredible. It’s one of those books that sits on my coffee table and now and then I work through another Chapter.

“I’ve also been looking at Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations now and then. My 20 year-old son has a copy of this very text, which is quite impressive! I find that the stoics have a lot to offer during a pandemic. Very insightful and many parts of stoic philosophy is grounding and comforting.

“I’ve been slowly reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari – a book I started back in February. It’s quite insightful and interesting, but is also taking on new meaning now that we are living in a pandemic.

“For ‘fun’ I’m reading Anthony Horowitz’s booked called The Word is Murder, says Buddle. “This author is perhaps best known for his Alex Rider series (a teenage spy), but he also writes some peculiar/weird/fun murder mysteries. This one starts off when a woman goes to a funeral parlour to arrange her own funeral (which isn’t that unusual), but later that day she was found murdered… intrigued? You should be…”


Domenic Aversano, Customer Service Coordinator, Printing Services, is reading Sandworm, A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, by Andy Greenberg; and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown

Following that, he plans to tackle The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov.


As per tradition, we close out our list with the selections of the McGill’s enigmatic man of mystery Bud Martin, who is hunkered down in the Bud Bunker.

“I’m using these strange days to pick up dropped threads. Vancouver writer Kevin Chong’s The Plague has sat, unfairly unread, on my shelf for two years. It’s a contemporary reworking of Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947), and a great read,” writes Bud. “A novel about fear, inequality, and quarantine is hardly escapist fare, but there’s reassurance in lines like ‘No one would characterize this period as ‘fun,’ but there was a heightened feeling in every Vancouverite’s actions. A trip to the store to buy milk felt eventful.’”

“Still on the epidemiology front, I’m blowing the cobwebs off Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, a page-turner about tracing the source of an 1854 cholera outbreak. Every time I’ve borrowed it from the Osler Library, it’s been immediately recalled. Viva ebooks,” says Bud.

“On a cheerier note, I’m reading The Penderwicks At Last to the kids at bedtime,” he says. “Jeanne Birdsall’s gentle, warm and funny series has been a big part of a years-long nightly ritual that, sadly, we stopped for no good reason. Our daily routines are topsy-turvy, so it’s comforting to revive this tradition, and reconnect with some fictional friends.”

“Last one: a forgotten copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’m trying to jog every day, alone or with some combination of family members. Murakami’s thoughts on perseverance ring especially true nowadays: ‘I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.’”

Girl reading – Charles E. Perugini (circa 1870)