5 best books to get through lockdown

#76: The five best books to get you through this holiday season lockdown!

This year was different, and the festive season will be quite different as well! In earlier years, the free days during the holiday season gave loads of possibilities to meet friends, visit concerts, cinemas, and museums, to pop into the gym or go skiing – boy how we miss it! With COVID19 lurking around and restrictions in place, the break will be more mundane this time around! And so we dug into our bookshelves and picked the 5 best books to help you cope with this time of social distancing and loneliness. We love them all, and thought they might help you get through the COVID19-winter break, and prepare you well for 2021. 

Browsing our bookshelves and coming up with five books that we recommend will be easy, we thought. But then, when you’re allowed to choose only five, the selection gets tricky. Our picks for a good start in 2021 include two of Gunther’s suggestions for entertainment (category ‘just for fun’) and three of Bärbel’s for inspiration and growth (category ‘keep improving your life’)! 

1. Po Bronson: What Should I Do With My Life?

This is a collection of real-life stories from people (like you and me) who answered the ultimate question of the purpose of their lives. 

For me, reading this book was an eye-opener that made me realise that many people are on the eternal search for meaning in their life, and that answering this question often entails many twists and turns. The book is wonderfully inspiring because it shows authentic and personal success stories, and is hugely motivating for all those who have not answered that question for themselves. The great thing is that it does not include the stereotypical ‘from dishwasher to millionaire’ story, but shows that one can answer this question in a myriad of different ways, and that each path is unique and worthwhile for itself. Ultimately, your purpose in life is what makes you happy, and what you genuinely love doing. 

The hugely entertaining and fascinating stories speak for themselves so that the author at no point has to start giving advice or lecturing us on what we should do. Rather, you’ll find that out for yourself along the way.

I often discuss career-choices with my participants in my course ‘How to apply for an academic staff position’ and I know that many of you are uncertain as to what might be the best career path or life-choice. I always suggest this book as a starter. Go get it, you’ll love it! 

2. Alexander McCall Smith: Portuguese Irregular Verbs 

This is the unique story of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a lovely fellow at the Institute of Roman Philology in Regensburg. If you have ever wondered what’s going on in the mindsets of us academics, and how others might perceive and understand us, this is your book! 

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, a former professor in medical law, created the figure of the odd, quirky, but passionate university professor who works himself through the peaks and valleys of recognition in academia. His own fanciful and pedantic behaviour symbolises the struggles of so many academics who work at the edge of some groundbreaking results, but face being neglected by their peers and communities. Yet, the book is about the longing for and failure of reaching this peer-appreciation, one of the most important currencies in the world of universities. 

Igelfeld is a likeable but also peculiar person, a character that you will find in academia only–a character we all know exists. I warmly recommend reading this book if you are looking for an entertaining insight into the life and sufferings of a “Why-does-nobody-cite-me?”-type of scholar in a field of research that is not in the daily focus. 

It helps that not only is Igelfeld’s institute based here in Bavaria, where we’re located, but that the story is narrated by a professor emeritus from Scotland, where we’ve been. The book just provides this warm outsider perspective on academic conduct in this country that, as we know from our experiences, is found at many other places in academia as well. We all know and have met some Professor Igelfelds in our academic life! 

3. Gary Keller and Jay Papasan: The ONE Thing

Are you one of those folks who never knows what to do first? Feeling confused? Scattering your efforts across 100 different tasks? Trying to multitask yourself out of overload? All of these will be problems of the past after you read The ONE Thing. I always loved books that helped me be more focused and make the best use of my time, but this one beats most others – by a wide margin! 

As the title indicates, with this approach you’ll not focus on your 20 or 10 or 5 most important tasks, but on a single one! And once that is tackled you’ll attend to the next one. The book centres around the question of the one thing you can do that makes everything else easier or even unnecessary. It helps you develop a mindset that is always searching for the task with the biggest impact so that you can make sure to move mountains (well, solve scientific problems, get ahead with your research projects, write those unwritten papers, etc. etc.)!

If you are looking for more focus and direction – read it! It’ll help you to recalibrate what you think is important in your work and life right now, and drill down to the handful of things that will help you move forward! Hint: Great podcast episodes available as well – check it out at iTunes “The ONE Thing Podcast”. 

4. John Cleese: Creativity 

I came across this tiny book when watching an interview with actor, comedian, and screenwriter John Cleese on a TV show. He was asked how he can cope with the demand to constantly produce new texts and content. His reply was remarkable and swift, something like “Oh you mean, how do I manage to be so creative? It’s a skill everybody can acquire!” Intrigued, I bought the book, and was excited about his short and cheerful guide. 

Treating creativity as a skill and not a gift, like Cleese does, allows you to work on your creative skills–to practice and train them. Isn’t this helpful for research as well? Sometimes, you do not know how to approach a problem, or how to explain a certain result. A creative process is needed, where your mind works for you–overnight, while you’re preoccupied with something else, or in those passive moments on the train or driving home. It is this idea of exercising and trusting your creative mindset that I think is the great lesson in this tiny book. 

In research, we rely a lot on being able to think in a logical, critical, and analytical way. This is a valid way of thinking and can bring you far, but it doesn’t provide answers to all questions. Some problems require a creative approach that brings along a more playful way of pondering the problem and finding a solution. It is less mechanistic, but no less rewarding or successful. It requires a different mindset. And Cleese details in his own amusing way what is needed to create an atmosphere that allows for creativity.       

5. Brendon Burchard: High Performance Habits

I read this book twice, and I just started reading it again because it is ultra motivating and fascinating. Brendon Burchard has researched the underlying features of high performance while working with countless people across all backgrounds, ages, and professions. He’s trying to answer the question of what makes people high achievers. And the book presents you with many habits and characteristics that high achievers have in common. If you’ve not considered yourself a high-achiever up to now – you better get used to it. As a scientist, PhD candidate or holder, lecturer, or professor, you are a high achiever!

But since High Performance Habits is not a science book but a guide-book, you’ll get to know what you can do to improve your performance, and be or become your best self in every situation–whether to be a great partner, parent, or colleague, or to become a fantastic leader, head of department, or supervisor. The author discusses personal habits and social habits, as well as how to sustain success, and each chapter comes with nice examples (personal stories of people he’s worked with) and finishes off with a few reflective questions you can use to implement or practise the respective habit. 

Enjoy this book bit-by-bit – just read a page or two a day in these boring times! You’ll have a true companion, and a perpetual source of motivation to succeed and help those around you to succeed and feel better as well. This work can help you come out of COVID19 lockdown a better person than before!  


Books cannot undo any of the negative effects of COVID19, but they can help you cope with its consequences – and are available even in the strictest lockdown periods. If you have the possibility, dive into one or the other of the books suggested here. They will lift your spirits and make you a happier person – and maybe a better one as well. But even if they just manage to conjure a smile on your face, that means a lot, and is much needed these days! Enjoy! 


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