What to read when you’re stuck inside

Girl in armchair reading with coffee

Looking for some good books to read while social distancing? Washington University alumni and faculty have you covered. Here are some book suggestions for every taste. For more faculty and alumni books, visit bookshelf.wustl.edu. (Click on the book title to read more. Click on the book cover to buy.)

For the rebel

Romance in Marseille
By Claude McKay
Edited by William J. Maxwell and Gary Edward Holcomb


Claude McKay was a poet and author during the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, cultural and social movement in Harlem in the 1920s. His groundbreaking novel was too controversial to be published when McKay was alive. Instead, it languished in archives for almost 90 years. Now, it’s being published for the first time, thanks to the efforts of Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell, professor of English and of African and African-American studies. The novel follows Lafala, a West African, who is discovered while stowing away on a boat and locked in a frigid closet. The resulting frostbite requires both his legs be amputated, but he successfully sues the shipping line over what happened. Now wealthy, Lafala returns to Marseille to resume a relationship with a Moroccan courtesan. The book is a new look at the lives of blacks from around the world and all walks of life at the height of the Jazz Age.

For art buffs

Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of His Final Years & Greatest Masterpiece
By William E. Wallace


The museums may be closed, but you can still revel in the accomplishments of Michelangelo with William Wallace’s book Michelangelo, God’s Architect. In 1545, at age 69, Michelangelo completed one of his greatest works, Moses. For his next project, Pope Paul III convinced Michelangelo to oversee the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Everything about St. Peter’s was a mess,” Wallace points out. By then construction on the cathedral had been going on for 40 years, had strayed from the original design, and was plagued with bribery and graft. “Michelangelo had already accomplished much and had every right to wonder whether this was the best way to devote his few remaining years,” Wallace writes. “He never before had faced such a challenge.” He also knew he would not live to see the cathedral finished. “Yet his salvation, he eventually came to realize, depended on resurrecting St. Peter’s.”

For the eavesdropper


Topics of Conversation
by Miranda Popkey

Missing … well, conversation? Topics of Conversation, a slim 205-page volume by alumna Miranda Popkey, MFA ’18, might be able to fill the void. The book is made up primarily of important talks that the unnamed and unhappy narrator had with other women over the course of nearly two decades. The narrator fills in her backstory, thoughts and feelings throughout. The conversations veer confessional and intimate as women talk about self-destructive lies, affairs, irritation at weak overly dependent men, and their desires. Heller McAlpin, writing for NPR says the book, “is sure to spark conversation” (which you’ll of course have over the phone or video conferencing).

For corporate denizens

The Economics of Higher Purpose: Eight Counterintuitive Steps for Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization
By Anjan V. Thakor and Robert E. Quinn


Brace yourself. Your corporate culture probably won’t return to business-as-usual at the end of this. Get some ideas about how to improve things for the better with The Economics of Higher Purpose, by Anjan V. Thakor, the John E. Simon Professor of Finance, and Robert E. Quinn. In the book, Thakor and Quinn argue that when a business has an authentic higher purpose, employers and employees see themselves as working toward an inspiring goal, and become fully engaged and proactive contributors. This changes previous cycles of managers being at odds with employees and using methods of coercion and control to get them to work.


For parents who want their kids to read a classic

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale Mike Bezemek

#Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale
By Mike Bezemek

Ishmael here! I went broke in NYC. 🙁 Super bored with land (damp drizzly soul). I’m going to sea! #callme #whalingvoyage.

No, it’s not the opening to Moby-Dick; or The Whale that you’re used to, but it’s how Mike Bezemek, MFA ’08, imagines Ishmael would have shared his news about his upcoming whaling voyage on Twitter. Bezemek has taken two literary classics, the other is #Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, and re-interpreted them for the digital age, giving readers a chance to get familiar with the story before trying to tackle the original. An appendix includes the passages that inspired the tweets.

For those who might be having their own roommate troubles

By Teddy Wayne


Stuck inside with your roommate? It could be worse. In Apartment, by Teddy Wayne, MFA ’07, an unnamed narrator in Columbia University’s graduate writing program is drawn to fellow classmate and scholarship student Billy Campbell. While the narrator is living rent-free in an illegal sublet, Billy is living in a storage unit, so the narrator offers him rent-free digs in return for cooking, cleaning and (implied) friendship with the lonely narrator. According to NPR, “Set primarily in 1996, Apartment dwells in a glaringly all-white, all-male, homophobic world. … It builds to a carefully seeded climax that will leave readers — and especially writers — queasy.” Wayne has taken on the topic of white men in the Ivy League before in his award-winning book Loner, which is currently in development at HBO. It is about a freshman misfit at Harvard who stalks a female classmate.

For families

Drawing Is Magic: Discovering Yourself in a Sketchbook
By John Hendrix


Encourage your own or your kids’ creativity with John Hendrix’s book Drawing Is Magic. In it, Hendrix teaches readers how to be creative daredevils with offbeat exercises and his own fun sketches and hand lettering. “If you treat your sketchbook like a playground,” Hendrix writes, “it will turn into a treasure map.”

Hendrix also has some impactful, illustrated books with powerful lessons that are great for family reading time, such as Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus, about the life of Jesus Christ, or The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, about a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who will risk everything to try and stop Adolf Hitler.


For those cooking more than usual

Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning
By Rafia Zafar

At this point, most of us are doing a lot more cooking at home. If you’re curious about why we’re eating what we eat, you may want to pick up Recipes for Respect. Rafia Zafar, professor of English, African-American studies and American culture studies, wrote about the African American influence on American foodways. She also taught a course on the topic. Beginning in the early 19th century and continuing nearly to the present day, African Americans have often been stereotyped as illiterate kitchen geniuses. Rafia Zafar addresses this error, highlighting the long history of accomplished African Americans within our culinary traditions, as well as the literary and entrepreneurial strategies for civil rights and respectability woven into the written records of dining, cooking, and serving.

For sports fans

The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sports
By Rafi Kohan

Rafi Kohan, The Arena

It hasn’t been that long since we were last able to gather in an arena and cheer on our favorite sports team, but if you’re already nostalgic for it, check out The Arena. In it, Rafi Kohan, AB ’05, talks about every aspect of America’s stadium culture including what AstroTurf is made of, how jet flyovers happen, and how pregame tailgaters are kept in line. “The Arena is an inventive, fast-paced look at what have become our modern shrines in a sports-obsessed society,” says best-selling author Tom Verducci.


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