What are you reading now? A look back at what Americans read in troubled times

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Life sucks right now.

Maybe you’re on the frontlines and have to face hundreds of others. Maybe your job got cut or you were laid off. Maybe you’re trying to learn how to create a YouTube channel now because of this. Maybe you’re working remotely and it’s heavier lifting than you thought. Maybe you also have kids to educate on top of all that and it feels like two jobs. Maybe you work at a hospital or have to clean up after us.

Or maybe you’re a news website that has lost a lot of its advertisers.

Regardless, we all need distractions from this. I’ve been exercising more, but am still gaining weight. Overall, I’ve noticed there’s a spike in binging on movies and television right now. “Tiger King” appears popular with those that can afford Netflix. According to associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts Julie Norem, pandemic movies are hot at the moment.

“There’s an implicit implication that if ‘we’ can beat those more serious threats, surely ‘we’ can get through COVID-19,” she said. “That has a lot of potential appeal.”

Personally, I have the urge to re-watch the dystopian “Children of Men” for the umpteenth time.

But my thoughts then drifted to “what are the bestselling books?”

If you search the New York Times Bestseller list for paperback nonfiction, for three straight weeks, it’s a book about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20. In hardcover, it’s a book about Winston Churchill, who’s most well known for leading the U.K. through World War II.

Fiction tends to be different and did not seem to fit the above pattern. According to the BBC, sales of fiction have gone up by a third and children’s education went up 234%.

Do we want to escape? Or also read related books? I haphazardly compiled a list of the New York Times fiction best sellers from other perilous times in American history.

These include:

  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor all the way to the end of the Nuremberg trials
  • When the Vietnam war escalated, the assassinations of  MLK and RFK, to the Fall of Saigon
  • The Wall Street crash of 1987
  • Sept. 11, 2001 and the beginning of the War in Iraq
  • The Great Recession of 2008

I personally gravitate more toward nonfiction, but the thought of opening a fiction book that Americans read during an extremely low point in our history is appealing.

The Robe” by Lloyd C. Douglas dominated the best selling list in the middle of World War II, signaling an embracing of faith during troubled times.

After Newark and Detroit in 1967, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron won the Pulitzer Prize.

When the U.S. invaded in Iraq in 2003, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown dominated the list for two years. Maybe the book’s popularity had everything to do with good storytelling and nothing to do with current events.

If you skimmed the list, did any book produce a memory? Strike a cord?

Please comment on what you are reading now, and if any on the linked fiction, nonfiction or otherwise, are memorable books to you and why.

About the author

Steve Chernoski

Steve Chernoski is a writer, film director and teacher who lives in Lambertville. Here's his website:


  • I have been reading for pure entertainment so far during this time. Mostly thrillers, like right now I’m reading Fatal Flaws by Clyde Lawrence. It’s been a very good read, the premise is great and the characters work well together. It’s something I would recommend.

  • I’m reading “Life of Pi”, a story about a young boy from India, whose family buys a circus in England, then while trying to ship the circus to Canada, the ship is sunk in a storm, & every one & all animals drown, except for the young boy & a full grown male Tiger, & they are in a life boat, adrift at sea, kits a wonderful story about survival, against all odds!

  • I recently finished “The Girl with all the Gifts” by M. R. Carey. That was the last book I checked out from the New Hope Library, but it’s still sitting on my shelf, since they’re not taking returns at this time. And then watched the movie version of the book, which does it justice. I’m reading a book now on my tablet (since I can’t go to library); it’s called “Dark Horses & Underdogs” by Les Krantz. It’s 50 short chapters on the greatest upsets in sports history; well-known ones like the “Miracle on Ice”, and ones that fill our current void (no March Madness), such as NC State toppling Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma, and Villanova’s near-perfect game over Georgetown.

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