Book collage

Our previous bookshelf feature offered 12 ways to escape pandemic isolation through books that burrow deep into one memorable place or books that track climate change across vividly different landscapes.

This month’s bookshelf, too, offers some escapes – into fictional worlds of the past, present, and future.

But it also offers some homework.

The summer of 2020 is a season of crises: the coronavirus crisis and the economic crisis it created, the turning point crisis of racial and social justice, and the intensifying crisis of climate change.

Getting through these crises will require critical reflection – on ourselves, on our country, and on the state of our planet. The non-fiction titles in this list can help with that work.

The last book in the list, however, provides a welcome reminder that nature can be a refuge in times of crisis. In “Diary of a Young Naturalist,” Dara McNulty, a teenager living in England, describes how his sojourns in nature have enabled him to deal with the isolation created by his autism.

Most of the titles in this list are quite new; four were released in just the past month. But one title was first published a quarter century ago. Why include it here? Because Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is set in the 2020s, and it still has much to say about the ways greed and power can poison natural ecosystems and human relationships.

Pick a book and cut a path.

Editor’s note: The descriptions of the titles listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the release of the paperback edition.


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How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X.Kendi (One World / Penguin Random House 2019, 320 pages $27.00. No date yet for paperback edition)

At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves. Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science with his own personal story of awakening to antiracism.

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The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, by Richard Horton (Polity Books 2020, 140 pages, $14.95 paperback)

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the greatest science policy failure in a generation. Warnings about the threat of a new pandemic have been made repeatedly since the 1980s and it was clear in January that a dangerous new virus had emerged in China. And yet the world ignored the warnings. Why? In this hard-hitting book, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, scrutinizes the actions that governments around the world took – and failed to take – as the virus spread from its origins in Wuhan to the global pandemic that it is today. Drawing on his own scientific and medical expertise, Horton outlines the measures that need to be put in place, nationally and internationally, to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again.

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The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread and How They Stop, by Adam Kucharski (Basic Books 2020, 352 pages, $30.00)

Whenever anything spreads, whether it’s a YouTube fad or a political rumor, we say it went viral. But how does virality actually work? In The Rules of Contagion, epidemiologist Adam Kucharski explores topics including gun violence, online manipulation, and, of course, outbreaks of disease to show how much we get wrong about contagion, and how astonishing the real science is. By uncovering the crucial factors driving outbreaks, we can see how things really spread – and what we can do about it. Whether you are an author seeking an audience, a defender of truth, or simply someone interested in human social behavior, Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion is an essential guide to modern life.

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The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, by Timothy C. Winegard (Dutton Books 2019/2020, 496 pages,$18.00 paperback)

Across our planet since the dawn of humankind, this nefarious pest, roughly the size and weight of a grape seed, has been at the frontlines of history as the grim reaper, the harvester of human populations, and the ultimate agent of historical change. The mosquito has determined the fates of empires and nations, razed and crippled economies, and decided the outcome of pivotal wars, killing nearly half of humanity along the way. Through the interplay between war, politics, travel, trade, and the changing patterns of human land use and climate, the mosquito became the greatest purveyor of extermination we have ever known; it has played a greater role in shaping our human story than any other living thing with which we share our global village.

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Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe, by Mario Alejandro Ariza (Bold Type Books / Hachette, 2020, 320 pages, $28.00)

Miami, Florida, is likely to be entirely underwater by the end of this century, but residents are already starting to see the effects of sea level rise today. From sunny day, high-tide flooding to a sewer system on the brink of total collapse, the city undeniably lives in a climate changed world. In Disposable City, Miami resident Mario Alejandro Ariza shows us what climate change looks like today and what Miami will look like 100 years from now – and how that future will be shaped by the city’s racist past and present. Wealthy residents will move to higher ground, leaving communities of color to face floods, heatwaves, and storms they can’t escape. Miami is on the front lines, but the battle it’s fighting today is coming for the rest of the U.S. soon.

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Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency, by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate / Harper Collins 2020, 384 pages, $27.99)

We are living in a climate emergency. But how much worse could it get? What kind of future can our children expect? Rigorously cataloguing the very latest climate science, Mark Lynas explores the course we have set for Earth over the next century and beyond. Degree by terrifying degree, he charts the likely consequences of global heating and the ensuing climate catastrophe. The escalating consequences of climate change can still be avoided, but time is running out. We must largely stop burning fossil fuels within a decade if we are to save the coral reefs and the Arctic. If we fail, then we risk crossing tipping points that could push global climate chaos out of humanity’s control, turning billions into climate refugees. This really is our final warning.


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The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler (Grand Central / Hachette Books 1993/2019, 368 pages, $16.99 paperback)

When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. She suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions. Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith … and a startling vision of human destiny. This 2019 edition of Butler’s acclaimed 1993 novel includes a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin, author of the Hugo-Award-winning cli-fi trilogy, The Broken Earth.

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The End of October: A Novel, by Lawrence Wright (Penguin Random House 2020, 400 pages, $27.95)

At an internment camp in Indonesia, forty-seven people are pronounced dead with acute hemorrhagic fever. When epidemiologist Henry Parsons travels there on behalf of the World Health Organization to investigate, he learns that an infected man is on his way to join the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca. Now, Henry joins forces with a Saudi prince and doctor in an attempt to quarantine the entire host of pilgrims in the holy city. Already-fraying global relations begin to snap, one by one, in the face of a pandemic, and the disease slashes across the United States, dismantling institutions and decimating the population. In the End of October, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright has given us an electrifying thriller.

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The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books, 544 pages, $30.99 hardcover / $17.99 simultaneously released paperback)

In The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series. The Earth is coming to a boiling point as the climate disaster of the meteor strike becomes more and more clear. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The International Aerospace Coalition’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is threatened. Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

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Greenwood: A Novel, by Michael Christie (Hogarth Books / Penguin Random House 2020, 528pages, $28.00)

It’s 2038 and Jake Greenwood is a storyteller and a liar, an overqualified tour guide babysitting ultra-rich vacationers in one of the world’s last remaining forests. It’s 2008 and Liam Greenwood is a carpenter, sprawled on his back in an empty mansion after a workplace fall. It’s 1974 and Willow Greenwood is out of jail, free after being locked up for one of her endless series of environmental protests. It’s 1934 and Everett Greenwood is alone, as usual, in his maple-syrup camp squat, when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant and gets tangled up in the web of a crime, secrets, and betrayal that will cling to his family for decades. Through-out, there are trees, working as Christie’s guiding metaphor for withering, weathering, and survival.

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God Shot: A Novel, by Chelsea Bieker (Catapult Books 2020, 336 pages, $26.00)

Drought has settled on the town of Peaches, California. Once an agricultural paradise, it’s now an environmental disaster, a place of cracked earth and barren raisin farms. In their desperation, residents have turned to a cult leader named Pastor Vern for guidance. He promises, through secret “assignments,” to bring rain. At first, fourteen-year-old Lacey May has no reason to doubt the pastor. But as she uncovers his shocking plan to bring fertility back to the land, she decides she must go on a quest to find the alcoholic mother who abandoned her. A debut novel of grit and humor and heart, Godshot introduces a writer who gives Flannery O’Connor’s Gothic parables a Californian twist and who emerges with a miracle that is all her own.


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Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty (Little Toller Books 2020, 228 pages, $24.30)

“I was diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism aged five … By age seven I knew I was very different, I got used to the isolation, my inability to break through into the world of talking about football. Then came the bullying. Nature became more than an escape; it became a life-support system.” Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of 15-year-old Dara McAnulty’s world. Through a year in his home patch in Northern Ireland, Dara spent the seasons writing. These moving diary entries about his connection to wildlife and the way he sees the world are raw in their telling. Diary of a Young Naturalist portrays Dara’s intense connection to the natural world, and his perspective as a teenager juggling exams and friendships alongside a life of campaigning.

Also see: 12 books for ‘virtual’ summer travels

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...