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Ask a book critic: The history of the end of the world

Our book critic recommends apocalyptic fiction and more.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

If you prefer your recommendations in audio form, you can listen to Ask a Book Critic, part of Vox Quick Hits. Hear a new episode of Ask a Book Critic — always under 10 minutes long — every two weeks wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

Now let’s get started.

I am a sucker for every Hallmark movie. Big-city character moves to a small town, adapts to a new place, budding romances, finding oneself, and usually a dog. I think, especially during these times of immense uncertainty, I take comfort from stories where everything is packaged up nicely and everyone drives off into the sunset, happily ever after. I also love great narratives and storytelling, and while I love my cheesy Hallmark movies, the storytelling can sometimes leave something to be desired.

So, do you have any feel-good warm and fuzzy romance books that include some fantastic storytelling?

Try Beach Read by Emily Henry. It’s about a women’s fiction writer who gets into a contest with a literary fiction novelist where they each agree to switch genres for the summer. Hijinks and romance ensue, and it’s all extremely fun to read.

I love a sprawling nonfiction book that tells me all about a city. Think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The last book that has come close for me is Boom Town by Sam Anderson, writing about Oklahoma City. I’m sure there are others, but I am in a dry spell.

The two authors I think you should check out are Erik Larson and Thomas Dyja. Larson’s Devil in the White City, about a serial killer in Chicago during the World’s Fair, is kind of a gimme, so it’s most likely already on your list. But if it’s not, check it out! It’s good! Larson is great at recreating the compulsive pacing of a thriller within the dense historical detail of nonfiction.

Less of a gimme: Dyja is an urbanist who writes histories of cities. His last book, The Third Coast, was about Chicago, and this year he published New York, New York, New York, about the city’s transition from its chaotic state of nature in 1978 to the rampant inequality it faces today. A fun bonus here is that Dyja capitalizes all the nouns he thinks are important, like he’s writing from the 18th century, which adds an interesting flavor to the reading experience.

Bonus recommendations: Golden Gates by Conor Dougherty uses San Francisco’s housing crisis to delve into the problem of income inequality more generally. For more of a philosophical examination of the power of cities, check out N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction series The City We Became, which we read in the Vox Book Club.

Was wondering if you have any recommendations for a very particular 2020–21 book mood at the intersection of post-apocalyptic and alternate history fiction: in-depth histories of the end of the world. Think the alternate timeline part of 11/22/63, the book-within-a-book from 1984, lots of World War Z, or the first couple chapters of lots of post-apocalyptic fiction (The Stand does it decently if anecdotally, Station Eleven was mostly unsatisfying in this regard). Basically, I’m looking for something that does a deep dive into this world-building (world-destroying?) as an end in itself, rather than a convenient device to either resolve a plot point or set the stage for the A-plot. The more gratuitous political and social detail, the better!

I’m going to direct you to Ada Palmer, a history professor at the University of Chicago whose far-future books have really intensive and careful world-building with a lot of information about how the politics of the world are organized. Also check out Parable of the Sower, an Octavia Butler classic that moves through the apocalypse with intense detail, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which a Catholic monastery attempts to preserve 20th-century scientific knowledge after a devastating nuclear war.

I’m a 68-year-old grandmother, retired, disabled with a wonky back. Besides the Mrs. Pollifax books, are there any reads about senior women having creative, life-altering adventures that don’t heavily involve matriarchal family stuff?

I am going to assume you are already aware of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books, but if not, they are classics for a reason. (Charming old lady becomes an amateur detective, solves crimes.) Otherwise, I would recommend Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which is about two women scientists trying to develop fertility drugs in the Amazon basin — the point-of-view character is 42, but her research partner is older and the most compelling figure in the book, really. Also try Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon, about a woman in her 70s living on a space colony who decides to stay behind by herself after the rest of the colony is shut down.

I was wondering if you could recommend some fiction books to me based on this specific problem I have been experiencing for some time now. I have found that for the past year or so, I have enjoyed reading nonfiction books more than fiction reads (and I am definitely more of a fiction person).

Some of the nonfiction books I have loved in recent times are: Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow.

Are there any fiction books which you think might mirror the nonfiction ones I have liked?

It sounds like you are in a place for books that spend a lot of time thinking about how media is shaping the way we think. Luckily, there’s actually a ton of ambitious fiction coming out right now about just that!

I have three recommendations for you. First, Self Care by Leigh Stein is a dark satire about two women working for a pop-feminist wellness company. It starts with one of the protagonists drinking wine from a mug that says “male tears” and lying on one of the office’s lavender velvet chaise lounges, compulsively hate-reading her mentions after she tweeted something mean at Ivanka Trump, and then it just goes on from there.

Second, Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler is about a woman who learns her boyfriend is an infamous Instagram conspiracy theorist. It starts off in January 2017, right as Donald Trump is taking office and the polite, progressive New York media is aghast at the online disinformation mill, and the narrator finds herself caught between enjoying condemning her boyfriend, whom she’s been thinking about dumping anyway, and relationship inertia. Oyler is an extremely talented and insightful literary critic (way meaner than I am, if you want to expand your critical reading list), and a lot of this book is a critique of both contemporary literary fiction and of the way we’re taught to think and speak by the larger media ecosystem.

Finally, No One Is Talking About This, by the poet Patricia Lockwood, aims to be a stream-of-communal-consciousness novel in which the consciousness is Twitter. The plot is hard to describe because so much of the experience of this book is about the language, but know that it is astonishingly good and beautiful and overwhelming, and it resolves into this very lovely, very tender place at the end.

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!