Two women connected by a colourful speech mark against a red background

If in doubt, talk about books. Image: Maria Ponomariova/Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

It’s hardly surprising that the frenzy for Zoom quizzes and WhatsApp chats has died down by the third lockdown: having spent a year in our homes, we’re running out of things to talk about. These days, the decision to switch the weekly shop for one supermarket to another counts as “personal news”. How, then, to have something invigorating and interesting to talk about when we can grab a coffee with a friend? Here are some books to get you chatting:

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)

The kind of love story that breaks your heart, Azumah Nelson's debut builds such an immersive world between two people that it feels almost tangible. This portrayal of a relationship between two nameless characters in South London is a breath of fresh air that punches so hard you have to talk about it. Plus, at 160 pages long, it's short enough to pass to a friend and have them finish by the next time you meet.

Read more: What is love? Caleb Azumah Nelson on one of life's biggest questions

Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick (2020)

You don’t even need to be a caffeine addict to find the novelty of pouring your own cafetiere has worn off, 12 months out of the office. Here is a topical tome for reuniting with those friends you’d normally catch mid-morning for a well-deserved hot drink. Sedgewick’s telling of coffee’s history – and its entwining with socioeconomics – is as warm, sweet and effective as the perfect cup. Sprawling from the American Civil War and the Marxist revolution in 1930s El Salvador to the coffee kings who made coffee one of the first global commodities, Coffeeland will urge you to rethink what you drink, and put people’s names and histories behind the bean.

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght (2020)

This is a non-fiction book that reads like an adventure novel from another time. Ornithologist and conservationist Jon Slaght went on the sort of challenge that gets dreamed up in the middle of a long car journey, or the end of a long night: to track down the world’s largest owl. Over the course of four brutal winters in the isolated wilds of Eastern Russia, Slaght and his crew of local assistants exist in and on caravans, haphazard snowmobiles, ethanol and scant rations in an attempt to save a creature that “looks as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear”. Too fun – and remarkable – not to hoot about.

Read more: One man's lifelong hunt for the world's largest owl

Slow Rise: A Bread-Making Adventure by Robert Penn (2021)

Hands up if you attempted to make bread in lockdown! Top your yeast chat game with a brief and intriguing history of bread, courtest of Penn's latest non-fiction odyssey. While everyone else is quietly competing over whether their sourdough starter is still functioning or not, you can gloss over the fact that yours is quietly mouldering in the fridge with a nifty bread fact. Ever ahead of the curve, Penn spent a year making bread from scratch - including planting, harvesting, threshing and milling his own wheat - and, along the way, learned about how other cultures provided their daily bread. For the toast-inclined, it's a must-read. 

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (2021)

After a year that has seen conversations over the legacy of – and reparations for – British colonialism taken into the streets, Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland seeks to explain why we have been so good at burying our country’s shameful history while unravelling the impact of it today. Sanghera’s critically acclaimed book takes a personal – he comes from a Sikh family and spoke no English until he was five – balanced and largely optimistic view of what Britain can do with its dark past and how it can make the most of its future. A vital read to engage with conversations that matter – pandemic or otherwise.

Read more: 'This book was like putting Britain on the therapy couch': Sathnam Sanghera on Empireland

Can’t Even by Helen Ann Peterson (2021)

If you’ve been sending beleaguered voice notes, ignoring those tedious-yet-scary-seeming letters, and have 83 unread emails in your personal inbox you just don’t quite know what to do with, elevate Peterson’s book to the top of that swaggering to-do list. The past year has offered many people with a whole new genre of exhaustion that they didn’t previously have the luxury of experiencing, but has also shown us how we can change our lives for the better as we return to a “new normal”. Peterson’s exploration of burn-out, and why the millennial generation, in particular, suffer from it so acutely, will make for provocative and reassuring conversations.

Read more: A burnout expert’s guide to lockdown (for the very burnt out)

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (2020)

The surprise hit of 2020, Sheldrake’s fantastic opus on fungi has plenty to talk about. Moving far beyond mushrooms, Sheldrake shows how these strange creatures – neither plant nor animal – affect every aspect of our lives, often in wholly invisible ways. From hallucinogens to cleaning up oil spills, fungi have millions of uses in the world around us as part of a “wood wide web”, that functions beneath our feet. As Sheldrake – a mycologist who has studied this stuff for decades – points out, much of our world is mycelium. It’s surely about time we found out about it. Fun-guy jokes optional.  

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

In a year where we had little to do but stay home watching television and reading, the literary epics became something of a welcome project to some – nothing fills the time and expands the mind like settling into 500 or more pages by Melville, Eliot, or Tolstoy. But it’s Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment that makes perhaps the best conversational kindling of them all: besides the literary themes and gripping plot, it’s the perfect jumping-off point for a conversation about humanity’s dark impulses, and the problems of human exceptionalism – that’s the kind of breezy fare we used to talk about pre-pandemic, isn’t it?

Read more: A long story: why record numbers of readers turned to doorstopper classics in lockdown

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis (2015)

When issues such as a global pandemic and a new civil rights movement can make banking corruption look positively quaint, Michael Lewis’s bombastic bestseller is worth a revisit – and a read if you’ve not read it before. When the financial journalist sat down to write Flash Boys in 2013, he was hoping to unravel the mysteries of the increasingly convoluted American stock market. What he ended up doing was revealing a tidal wave of corruption, a hurricane of apathy and a team of vigilantes (disenchanted but deeply clever Wall Street types) who are trying – desperately – to insert some moral consciousness into the whole mess. If that wasn’t juicy enough, Flash Boys ends on a vertiginous cliffhanger. There’s plenty in there to interrupt the banana bread-based chat.  

Artificial Intelligence by Matt Burgess (2021)

When you tell your mates and colleagues about this one… how will they know you’re human, and not a machine that has learned to converse? In this informative, deeply researched handbook on the subject of AI, Matt Burgess defines how it works, the tremendous strides the technology has taken in the past decade and, most importantly, how it might be used in the future. That AI might meet human intelligence isn’t a given, but the proximity will demand important political – and moral – questions.

Read more about the future from this collaborative series with WIRED Guides to Climate Change and the Future of Medicine.

The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources by Javier Blas and Jack Farchy (2021)

It's often said that money makes the world go around, and rarely has this so been shown to be the case as by Blas and Farchy in this fascinating look at the trade deals that power objects we use every day. From our mobile phones to fossil fuels, these products - that often go without a second's thought from their users - are at the heart of eyebrow-raising international business. The Sunday Times has called The World for Sale "staggering", The Financial Times compared it to a thriller. This is a book that you won't be able to stop talking about.

What did you think of this article? Let us know by emailing editor@penguin.co.uk.

Read more

We use cookies on this site to enable certain parts of the site to function and to collect information about your use of the site so that we can improve our visitors’ experience.

For more on our cookies and changing your settings click here


Strictly Necessary


Analytics


Preferences & Features


Targeting / Advertising