15 Books About Art to Read During Quarantine

Joanna Kaszubowska 7 November 2020 min Read

Hopefully you are all in good health as the coronavirus rampages through the world! As quarantine seems to be the order of the day again and DailyArt Magazine’s crew is here to make sure you don’t succumb to boredom! As many of you may be cooped up at home, and as for half of the world it is a rather gloomy autumn, to cheer yourself up you may want to make yourself a cup of nice tea and wrap yourself in a blanket on the couch with a good book. We have you covered with the 15 artsy books to read during the quarantine.

15 Artsy Books to Read During Quarantine

Art as Therapy – Alain de Botton, John Armstrong

Art as Therapy – Alain de Botton, John Armstrong - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: Art as Therapy – Alain de Botton, John Armstrong.

There is widespread agreement that art is ‘very important’ but it can be remarkably hard to say exactly why. Yet if art is to enjoy its privileges, it has to be able to demonstrate its relevance in understandable ways to the widest possible audience.

The purpose of this book is to introduce a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy. The authors propose that certain artworks provide powerful solutions to our problems. However in order for this potential to be realized, the audience’s attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate). They argue that the belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held art back from revealing its latent therapeutic potential.

Art and Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd – Jeanette Winterson

Art and Lies A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd – Jeanette Winterson
Artsy Books for Quarantine: Art and Lies A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd – Jeanette Winterson.

‘There is no such thing as autobiography, there is only art
and lies’.

Set in a London of the near future, its three principal characters, Handel, Picasso, and Sappho, separately flee the city and find themselves on the same train. They are drawn to one another through the curious agency of a book. Stories within stories take us through the unlikely love-affairs of one Doll Sneerpiece (an 18th-century bawd) and into the world of painful beauty where language has the power to heal.

Art & Lies is a question and a quest: How shall I live?

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

On Beauty - Zadie Smith - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: On Beauty – Zadie Smith.

One of my favorite books, it not only manages to examine a score of heavy topics but it also manages to remain ironically funny throughout.

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasm of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard’s older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps. The two families thus find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is that beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

Girl With a Pearl Earring – Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier
Artsy Books for Quarantine: Girl With a Pearl Earring – Tracy Chevalier.

This one is a modern classic, one of those books that sparked
a genre of their own.

Her eyes are fixed on someone. But who? What is she thinking as she looks out from one of the world’s most-loved paintings?

Johannes Vermeer can spot exceptional beauty. When a servant girl Griet catches his eye, she soon becomes both student and muse. He then gives her his wife’s pearl earrings to wear for a portrait and a scandal erupts that will threaten Griet’s future.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde.

Here we have a Classic classic. A painter, in love with his subject, creates a work of art that surpasses the boundaries of what we find possible. As the painting ages, Dorian bears no brunt of his actions. The painting absorbs all of it. You might argue that this is the idea of Art as Therapy driven to its most illogical conclusion. Believe me, Dorian makes all the use of his life without consequences. Whether or not it makes him happy is another story.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tart

The Goldfinch - Donna Tart - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: The Goldfinch – Donna Tart.

It was probably the most discussed book in 2014. It captivated readers across the globe, won its author a Pulitzer Prize, and yet left some critics dissatisfied. The best way to make up your mind is to just read it. Be warned though, at over 800 pages it is a bit of a time commitment. You can also see the film.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, a family of a wealthy friend takes him in. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and through the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antique store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red - Orhan Pamuk
Artsy Books for Quarantine: My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk.

While we’re on the topic of prizes let’s meet Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Literary Nobel Prize laureate.

My Name is Red was published eight years before that and is an exquisite book. In the first few pages, we find out that the person we believe to be the main character is, in fact, dead at the bottom of a well. To honor the thousandth anniversary (measured in lunar years) of the Hegira, which occurred in 622 CE, an illustrated book is being prepared for the Sultan in the “Frankish,” or “Venetian,” style of receding perspective and recognizable individual portraiture. We have here a murder mystery revolving around an art discourse. Is the Ottoman empire being westernized? Should it resist? Or accept the inevitable and turn it to its benefit? How truly big is the power of art?

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown.

I’m sorry I couldn’t skip this one. I hope you’ll forgive me…and Dan Brown.

Irrespective of its literary value it is a book that popularized Renaissance art like hardly any other. Also since this book Brown published a score of books that make this one actually look rather decent.

While in Paris, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is awakened by a phone call in the dead of the night. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, his body covered in baffling symbols. As Langdon and gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci—clues visible for all to see and yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.

Even more startling, the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion (a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci) and he guarded a breathtaking historical secret. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle, while avoiding the faceless adversary who shadows their every move, the explosive, ancient truth will be lost forever.

The Agony and the Ecstasy – Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy – Irving Stone
Artsy Books for Quarantine: The Agony and the Ecstasy – Irving Stone.

I mentioned that The Da Vinci Code popularized Renaissance art like hardly any other book. Well, here we have one of the others. Almost 50 years earlier instead of The Da Vinci Code people were reading The Agony and The Ecstasy, arguably a much better work from a literary standpoint.

The book is about the art and life of Michelangelo. It is a novel though, balancing on the border between fiction and non-fiction. Stone lived in Italy for years visiting many of the locations in Rome and Florence, worked in marble quarries, and apprenticed himself to a marble sculptor.

A primary source for the novel is Michelangelo’s correspondence, all 495 letters of which Stone had translated from Italian by Charles Speroni and published in 1962 as I, Michelangelo, Sculptor. He also collaborated with Canadian sculptor Stanley Lewis, who researched Michelangelo’s carving technique and tools. With all this research Stone managed to breathe life and passion into the account, making it a real page-turner.

The Swan Thieves – Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova - Artsy Books to Read During Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: The Swan Thieves – Elizabeth Kostova.

It is a story of obsession, history’s losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

History of Beauty – Umberto Eco

On Beauty - Umberto Eco
Artsy Books for Quarantine: History of Beauty – Umberto Eco.

You can order all the other books on this list in electronic form, sparing you leaving the house or waiting for a parcel. Not this one though, it is a book that cannot exist without its colorful and expertly selected visual material. The text goes hand in hand with the art, exploring the western concept of beauty in all its aspects.

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

Ways of Seeing - John Berger - Artsy Books to Read During the Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: Ways of Seeing – John Berger.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series. You may agree or disagree with Berger’s statements and opinions, but it’s a book that will not leave you neutral.

‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.’

‘But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’

On Photography – Susan Sonntag

On Photography - Susan Sonntag
Artsy Books for Quarantine: On Photography – Susan Sonntag.

Just as Berger’s book is one of the most influential books about art, you would be hard pressed to find a photographer who did not read Susan Sonntag’s On Photography. Again, they may not agree, but they do have an opinion.

Photographs are everywhere. From high art to family albums to legal evidence, they capture and document the world around us. Whether we use them to expose, reveal, or remember, they hold an enduring power. Susan Sontag confronts important questions surrounding the power dynamics between photographer and subject, the blurred boundary between lived events and recreated images, and the desires that lead us to record our lives.

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

How to Be Both - Ali Smith - Artsy Books to Read During the Self-Quarantine
Artsy Books for Quarantine: How to Be Both – Ali Smith.

It is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take. It’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structure gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fiction gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Who says stories reach everybody in the same order? You can read this novel in two ways and this book provides you with both. In half of all printed editions of the novel the narrative EYES comes before CAMERA. In the other half of printed editions the narrative CAMERA precedes EYES. The narratives are exactly the same in both versions, just in a different order. Enjoy the adventure.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood
Artsy Books for Quarantine: Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood.

The book tells the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, and artist, and woman. Above all she must seek release from her haunting memories.

How many of our artsy books to read during quarantine have you already read? What would you recommend?



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