What to Read While Locked Down in Austin
Texas Book Festival’s Literary Director recommends fiction and non-fiction for Austinites sheltering in place
By Matthew Patin
We’ve all been asked to stay home and isolate as much as possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. And because reading is a wonderful way to pass time in solitude, Tribeza asked Texas Book Festival Literary Director Matthew Patin to curate a quarantine reading list of suggestions for Austinites who would like to take their minds off the crisis for a time — or encounter a new perspective on the pandemic and our city. With 15 years of experience in literary consulting, writing, editing and publishing books, Patin has suggested both fiction and nonfiction stories centered around Austin. Enjoy!
Book readers are no strangers to lengthy, dedicated bouts of isolation. Shutting ourselves in is par for the course, after all. “Reading is solitude,” fabulist Italo Calvino wrote in 1979.
Yet, whereas the reading experience often begins alone, it rarely ends there. Book clubs, bookstore and library events, festivals and conferences — these are how we meet and support our literary heroes, rave about must-reads, discover new voices and explore with like-minded bibliophiles the stories, characters and ideas that move us. What to do, then, when these outlets evaporate, and readerly selective solitude becomes mandated social distancing and sheltering-in-place?
I for one am pointing authors and readers alike toward PEN America’s Writers’ Emergency Fund, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and resources on how to keep supporting Texas’s independent booksellers, its public libraries and its literary nonprofits. I’m binging on an abundance of virtual literary programming, too, including Texas Book Festival’s own Instagram Live author sessions and its monthly online book club. And I am reading, rereading or planning to read those stories that may one day be dubbed contagion fiction: Severance by Ling Ma, The Companions by Katie M. Flynn and the forthcoming End of October by Austin’s own Lawrence Wright.
The Plague sits on my shelf, too. Albert Camus’s classic tale of a town grappling with a pandemic is on many to-read lists lately, but what has long struck me is a line from the book’s first chapter: “Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love” — and, grimly, considering the book’s themes — “how they die.” Sense of place is what Camus’s narrator was more or less addressing here, and sense of place occupies many of my thoughts lately. That is, how in the age of coronavirus — when we’re standing at least six feet apart on the greenbelt, jumping at every cough and sneeze and washing our hands raw — might we as Austinites continue connecting, through literature, with each other and to this place we all call home?
The reading list that follows is my attempt to answer that question. Most of these books are in my own home library; some are to-read. Some are old and some new, some heavy and some light, some fiction and some nonfiction. But all are about, or set in, Texas’s capital city.
The Roxy Letters (forthcoming) by Mary Pauline Lowry
How Perfect Is That by Sarah Bird
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer
Keep Mars Weird by Neal Pollack
Waterloo by Karen Olsson
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
Then and Now: How Austin Became Austin
Power, Money, & the People: The Making of Modern Austin by Anthony Orum
Seat of Empire: The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas by Jeffrey Stuart Kerr
Indelible Austin by Michael Barnes
Crime and Vice in Old Austin
The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth
Guy Town by Gaslight: A History of Vice in Austin’s First Ward by Richard Zelade
The Live Music Capital of the World
Redneck Rock by Jan Reid
Armadillo World Headquarters by Eddie Wilson
Barton Springs, Lady Bird Lake and the Greening of Central Texas
City in a Garden by Andrew M. Busch
Environmental City by William Scott Swearingen Jr.