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When news of the severity of the COVID-19 crisis hit, I experienced an unexpected reflex: before stocking my fridge, I checked my bedside book stack for ample reads. Travelers may be relegated to the indoors at the moment, but books still hold their limitless potential to open the door to different worlds.
Here are a few ideas for armchair travelers on the lookout for stories—both old and new—with the power to transport readers to other times and places.
There are few better conditions for cracking open a classic—particularly those above the 500-page mark—than during an extended period of time spent at home.
The Portrait of a Lady
Travel to the English countryside and the golden cities of Italy in the late 19th century through The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. First published in serialized form, the novel’s early readers were forced to wait for the next installment to learn about the fate of heroine Isabel Archer, but today’s readers face no such challenges. Grand country estates, a web of intriguing characters, and fabulous parties full of drama sweep the reader through over 600 pages.
To buy: $12; barnesandnoble.com
Middlemarch by George Eliot also first appeared in installments in 1871 and 1872. Descriptions of garden strolls and elaborate country manors bring a fictitious town of the Midlands in England to life. Intersecting stories of several characters builds intrigue over 800 pages in the type of novel that leaves readers eager to pick up where they left off the night before.
To buy: $11; target.com
Russian authors mastered the art of the epic novel, and Anna Karenina, an 800+ page book by Leo Tolstoy, might be the finest example of all. First published in the 1870s, this novel details the doomed love affair of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky among the extravagant landscape of 19th-century Russia. The passion, pain, and desire of the characters are as relevant today as when it was first published.
To buy: $17; target.com
True stories can be just as captivating as fiction when in the hands of a deft narrator.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Drive across the U.S. with John Steinbeck in his 1962 memoir Travels with Charley: In Search of America. The author hit the road with his poodle, Charley, driving a loop from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through the American south, out to California, and back east again, documenting the conversations, roads, and controversies he encountered along the way.
To buy: $13; target.com
Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone
Explore the deserts of Mexico and shorelines of the Caribbean with Mary Morris guiding the way in Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Published in 1988, this travelogue details an adventure into Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. It also depicts daily life in the small Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende where Morris faces the challenges of being a woman traveling alone and strikes up a meaningful friendship with a neighbor.
To buy: $5; thriftbooks.com
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
Learn about the period of history in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles in Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is not an uplifting memoir or travelogue, but rather a meticulously researched book that brings to life the stories of several families and individuals who were deeply impacted by the kidnapping, violence, and unrest of the Troubles. Exceptional storytelling and rich detail earned this 2018 book several awards.
To buy: $27; barnesandnoble.com
Days of confinement may call for the kind of book that is so all-consuming, it makes hours disappear in a flurry of plot twists.
Four friends in Tokyo share a secret in Out, a Japanese thriller by Natsuo Kirino. A crime and its aftermath are at the center of this dark novel, but there’s more than just suspense and tension for armchair travelers to enjoy. Kirino goes beyond typical depictions of Japanese society and offers a glimpse behind closed doors of homes in the Tokyo suburbs over 400 nerve-wracking pages.
To buy: $11; target.com
Korean-American author Min Jin Lee tells a multi-generational story in her epic historical novel Pachinko. Follow a Korean family who moves to Japan in this book that goes inside quiet fishing villages, vibrant street markets, and noisy pachinko parlors. A teenage romance gone wrong ripples through several generations in this story of sacrifice and perseverance.
To buy: $19; target.com