I deleted my Spotify account earlier this year. I cried afterwards.
The crying was mostly because of my brother Zach.
After he died in 2021 and we started going through his things, my sister Elisabeth found his private Spotify account logged in on his computer. She made it so his account was following both my and her accounts, to create a new link of connection between us, albeit posthumously.
It made me happy to have this new insight into his world. I scoured every inch of his playlists, looking for any songs or bands we had in common. I smiled when I saw his “ari” playlist, thinking back on all the times I overheard him singing along to Ariana Grande behind his closed bedroom door (he also loved Taylor Swift). I melted when I saw the Lord of the Rings audiobook playlist, because as a kid he would always fall asleep listening to that exact same audio series—except back then it was a wooden boxed set of CDs and a little CD player he kept by his bed.
That CD player and boxed set are still in his closet right now.
I wanted to lose myself in Zach’s playlists, to close my eyes and imagine he was here, but I didn’t really feel a connection to any of his music, even though some of the playlists brought me detached nostalgia. What I really wanted was something we had in common. But I didn’t even know most of his music.
The difference between my sister and me is that she took all this new information we discovered about him and saw it as an opportunity to get to know him better, while I wanted to find connections between us that had already been there before he died. Just different ways of grieving.
The only song I found in all of his playlists that I truly resonated with was “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals. Zach had it in a playlist called “loop.” I, too, used to loop that song.
I listened to it on repeat all of summer 2020, when I moved from California back in with my parents in Nevada. I was furious that my life in California had fallen apart, and the way that I processed anger at the time was to go on a run. But it was blazing hot in Nevada, so I would wait until at least midnight to start running, returning home at 2 or 3 in the morning.
And that song “Heat Waves” was constantly on loop while I ran, because that song felt like nostalgia and heartbreak and lost things and the inability to say goodbye. It felt the way I felt.
I was desperate for my life back in California, but utterly heartbroken by the way life there had chewed me up and spit me out during the first half of 2020. It was a weird mix of wanting to go back, but knowing I never could. I felt like such a failure.
Glass Animals said that “Heat Waves” was about “realising it’s ok to be defeated by something.”
They continue: “we are often expected to ‘be strong’ and to swallow our sadness. failing to do that is seen as weakness. so we try to cover up our feelings and hide inside of TV shows or video games or drink or drugs. but being vulnerable should be a positive thing.”
I’ve felt defeated many times in my life, but 2020 was perhaps the first time where I felt truly powerless.
Alongside the excavation of life as we all knew it in 2020, I also lived through multiple implosions of my own life. I kept losing my footing. Instead of just being repeatedly knocked down, yet able to stand back up again, I felt like I was trapped in an avalanche.
Among other things, during lockdown in 2020, I also dealt with suicidal depression, being quarantined with my narcissistic roommate, and having literally no income which brought debt and food insecurity into my life.
Later in 2021, while holing up at my parents house and trying to recover, the avalanche was replaced with a painful volcanic explosion.
I learned I was autistic, which toppled the foundation of my existence. One of my best friends was run over by a semi truck and became a quadriplegic.
And my sweet brother lost his life.
I’m not in a constant state of “feeling defeated,” even after experiencing trauma and pain and loss. I get back up because I want to keep going and keep exploring life, because I feel like my life has a purpose for existing.
But within cycles of falling down and getting back up comes increased levels of vulnerability.
Layers of myself have sloughed off, masks and forcefields and naivety and blindness. All this shedding is good, because I’m becoming a better version of myself. But still. It all makes me feel more sensitive. Trauma is noisy and the world is noisy and it all makes my head feel noisy.
In summer 2020, in the middle of all this defeat, looping songs that talked about this pain felt necessary, because I felt too lonely to just stay inside my own head and my own feelings. I desperately needed to know that I wasn’t alone.
But three years later, I’m feeling emotionally stronger, yet weirdly more sensitive. I feel happier inside my head, but also craving more peace in the world. Which is making me feel like I just don’t have the bandwidth anymore for very much music consumption.
She tried to concentrate on the sound, but music had always unmoored her, and her thoughts drifted.
—Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
I know there are artists who like music in the background when they work; they use the music to block out everything else. They’re not listening to it; it’s there as a form of companionship. I don’t need a soundtrack to accompany my life. Music in the background nibbles away at your awareness. It’s comforting, perhaps, but who said tapping into your awareness was supposed to be comfortable? And who knows how much of your brainpower and intuition the music is draining?
—Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I admitted to my boyfriend Ethan several months ago, slightly embarrassed, that I haven’t had the urge to go to any concerts since the world opened back up. Surprisingly, he actually reciprocated that confession.
I wonder if the only concert we’ll ever go to together is the one we went to years before we met. An alt-J concert here in Las Vegas, in 2018. What a wild moment it was to figure out that we had been in the same room together, though in profoundly different worlds.
Somehow four years later, the threads of resonance pulled us together. Somehow we ended up in the same climbing gym, on the same bouldering team, on the same frequency.
We’ve been together for ten months now, but I knew before our first date that he was my one.
I’m not actually planning to never go out to a concert again. I’m sure Ethan and I will go to a concert together one of these days. But as I get older and feel a little more stable in life, the way that I want to listen to music at home has changed.
I used Spotify pretty much exclusively as my way to listen to music over the past ten years. It started off just as an exciting way to have access to whatever I wanted to listen to. Then it began morphing into a way to collect memories, especially after I went to bible college in 2014.
Spotify was the absolute shit at bible college. All my friends followed each other’s accounts and discovered what each person was listening to. We would make playlists based on memories or vibes or the semester’s theme (#lighthasdawned) or our favorite locations (rock tree or the lookout or ofc). My college ex devoted lots of time to make “banger” playlists for him and his fellow campus servers to have good vibes as they set up the dining room for retreats or conferences. I worked in the AV department and compiled songs that would sound really epic on the speakers all over campus, on the days that I had to test the sound systems. We both loved Twenty One Pilots, and the summer of 2015 we unintentionally spread TØP love throughout the entire campus, thanks to our respective jobs and access to aux cords. Everyone was singing “Stressed Out” that summer.
Playlists were a way to capture a certain vibe, but also to pin down a memory or a feeling. A collection of songs that could accurately collage an experience. Like a musical scrapbook. Even after each semester or season in life came to an end, a playlist made during that time could bring me back, a rush of nostalgia and longing.
But this playlist building practice felt soured after 2020. I, of course, made massive playlists when I lived in California in 2019 and 2020. My music taste was completely overhauled thanks to my roommates, and I began listening primarily to old school rap, reggaetón, and my now favorite band, Khruangbin. It was total beach vibes there, marijuana plants, surfboards, hammocks, backyard chickens, lemon trees, film cameras, ukuleles, yoga mats, ping-pong table, modelos, shroom smoothies.
When that life ended, I listened to my California playlists endlessly, obsessively. Hiding in the past, hating the present, not at all hopeful about the future. Just truly embodying the concept of “the best days are behind me.” My intentionally built dream life was over and I was stuck living a life I didn’t want. What was there to look forward to?
Not surprisingly, there was plenty to look forward to. I started healing from my pain and grief and trauma, as self-help girlies are wont to do, and my life slowly opened up again. I began fulfilling long held dreams of mine like finally getting to rock climb whenever I fucking want and being in an amazing stable loving relationship for the first time.
The more my life opened up, the more stale these old playlists seemed. I felt tired whenever I listened to them. And I don’t think it was because I just overplayed them, but because of the state of mind I had been in when I obsessively listened to them. I had been so isolated in my head, so lonely, I thought there was nothing more to look forward to in life, and I only wanted to revisit feelings and memories of the past.
Now that I’m healthy again and starting to thrive, I just don’t want to devote as much time to looking back and being nostalgic. It feels suffocating.
I told a musician friend of mine that I deleted my Spotify account as a way to heal and move on with life, and he was kind of horrified. He said that he used his old Spotify playlists as a marker of how far he’s come in life. Listening to the music he loved at a certain time, lyrics and themes, he’s able to track his growth and feel proud of himself.
I actually think that’s really cool.
But for me, I find that a natural part of my healing progression is learning to let things go.
Which is fine and dandy when you’re healing from a breakup or bad living situation, but absolutely tragic when you’re trying to heal from the death of a loved one. It seems cruel that healing from grief of death eventually means that you stop feeling as much emotion from the memories as you used to.
In many ways, it feels like the honorable thing to do is to stay in the state of grief and remembrance.
Part of me doesn’t want to heal, because healing causes you to move on in tiny ways.
Part of me wants to stay traumatized forever, haunted by his ghost, worn down by heavy emotions. I felt so guilty the first time I laughed after he died, the first day I didn’t cry over him, the first day that I felt pretty again and didn’t look like death warmed over.
And part of me felt guilty for deleting my Spotify and no longer having access to his music.
But music nostalgia can quickly morph into just being stuck in the past, or even stuck in a traumatic feeling. And I felt sad when I realized that my music taste hadn’t really changed at all since living in California, how stuck in the past I became. And I felt sad when I saw Zach’s playlists and all this music I couldn’t relate to and thought about all the things I’ll never know about him and how he’ll never get to grow and evolve beyond the 21 year old version of himself. It all just felt so sad and I didn’t want to associate music with catalogued playlists of sadness anymore.
So my Spotify is officially deleted.
Maybe that’s why I desperately want a record player now. Obviously I want one for the aesthetics of it. I love an old fashioned vintage vibe. I feel like it’s my final form as a surly millennial. I already have a tobacco pipe and John Lennon sunglasses, and my sister and I co-own our grandma’s typewriter. Besides aesthetics, I want music to be less of a curated collection of specific memories, and more like an art experience again. I want to listen to albums again, albums, damn it. (I’m saying this the same way that Bilbo says, “I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf!”)
But I think I also want a record player because you can’t listen to music on repeat on it (unless there are some record player hacks to achieve this). The main intention of a record player is to listen to an album all the way through, and it stops when it’s done. No looping or hijacking of emotions.
Zach had a song playing on his computer when he died. Playing on a loop.
We kept his computer on for over a year, the song playing on infinite repeat that entire time. I would quietly slip into his room when no one else was around and sit in his desk chair and put on his headphones.
The song was always playing, a piano cover he had liked, a sweet solace, his final gift to us. I always cried when I listened to it.
We had to shut the computer off around Christmas last year. I lashed out at my older brother for turning it off, but he said the computer was crashing and he was trying to preserve as much as he could.
And the song finally came to an end.
It felt like unplugging a coma patient. It felt like his breath finally let out and his heart gave its last beat.
It hurts to heal. It hurts to let go. But we’re still here living, so we need to live.
The past was beautiful. And so is the future.
No more looping.
Time to start living.
“Elsa,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her, moving to a song that wasn’t being played. “We are the music.”
—Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds
I am so tuned to being alive that if you touch me it makes music.
—Jenny Slate, Little Weirds
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Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Read In: 2022
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
Station Eleven: A novel
Mandel, Emily St. John
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The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour, And for me, now as then, it is too much. There is too much world. —Czeslaw Milosz The Separate Notebooks
2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
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survival is insufficient.
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Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.
3. I Prefer You With a Crown
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Not merely pretty, he decides. She is actually beautiful, but it’s a subtle kind of beauty that takes some time to make itself apparent. She is the opposite of the L.A. girls with their blond hair and tight T-shirts and tans.
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“I know it’s temporary.” But this is her secret: she doesn’t want it to end. What she can never tell Pablo, because he disdains all things corporate, is that she likes being at Neptune Logistics more than she likes being at home. Home is a small dark apartment with an ever-growing population of dust bunnies, the hallway narrowed by Pablo’s canvases propped up against the walls, an easel blocking the lower half of the living room window. Her workspace at Neptune Logistics is all clean lines and recessed lighting. She works on her never-ending project for hours at a time. In art school they talked about day jobs in tones of horror. She never would have imagined that her day job would be the calmest and least cluttered part of her life.
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They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.
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“You’re always half on Station Eleven,” Pablo said during a fight a week or so ago, “and I don’t even understand your project. What are you actually going for here?” He has no interest in comics. He doesn’t understand the difference between serious graphic novels and Saturday-morning cartoons with wide-eyed tweetybirds and floppy-limbed cats. When sober, he suggests that she’s squandering her talent. When drunk, he implies that there isn’t much there to squander, although later he apologizes for this and sometimes cries. It’s been a year and two months since he sold his last painting. She started to explain her project to him again but the words stopped in her throat. “You don’t have to understand it,” she said. “It’s mine.”
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She is beautiful in a way that makes people forget what they were going to say when they look at her. She is very soft-spoken. People are forever leaning in close to hear what she’s saying.
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She’s seated at the opposite end of the table from Arthur, and she somehow can’t quite manage to catch his eye. He’s talking to everyone except her. No one seems to have noticed that Miranda’s saying very little. “I wish you’d try a little harder,” Arthur has said to her once or twice, but she knows she’ll never belong here no matter how hard she tries. These are not her people. She is marooned on a strange planet. The best she can do is pretend to be unflappable when she isn’t.
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She hasn’t smoked in a while, managed to convince herself that smoking is disgusting, but it’s a pleasure, actually, more of a pleasure than she remembered. The lit end flares in the darkness when she inhales. She likes Hollywood best at night, in the quiet, when it’s all dark leaves and shadows and night-blooming flowers, the edges softened, gently lit streets curving up into the hills.
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“Why’s Elizabeth Colton’s car still in the driveway?” “Because she’s a raging alcoholic,” Miranda says. His eyes widen. “Really?” “She’s too wasted to drive. You didn’t hear that from me.” “Sure. No. Thank you.” “You’re welcome. You people live for that kind of gossip, don’t you?” “No,” he says, “I live on that kind of gossip, actually. As in, it pays my rent. What I live for is something different.” “What do you live for?” “Truth and beauty,” he says, deadpan.
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“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.”
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In three months Miranda and Arthur will sit in a conference room with their lawyers to work out the final terms of their divorce settlement while the paparazzi smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk outside, while Elizabeth packs to move into the house with the crescent-moon light by the pool. In four months Miranda will be back in Toronto, divorced at twenty-seven, working on a commerce degree, spending her alimony on expensive clothing and consultations with stylists because she’s come to understand that clothes are armor; she will call Leon Prevant to ask about employment and a week later she’ll be back at Neptune Logistics, in a more interesting job now, working under Leon in Client Relations, rising rapidly through the company until she comes to a point after four or five years when she travels almost constantly between a dozen countries and lives mostly out of a carry-on suitcase, a time when she lives a life that feels like freedom and sleeps with her downstairs neighbor occasionally but refuses to date anyone, whispers “I repent nothing” into the mirrors of a hundred hotel rooms from London to Singapore and in the morning puts on the clothes that make her invincible, a life where the moments of emptiness and disappointment are minimal, where by her midthirties she feels competent and at last more or less at ease in the world, studying foreign languages in first-class lounges and traveling in comfortable seats across oceans, meeting with clients and living her job, breathing her job, until she isn’t sure where she stops and her job begins, almost always loves her life but is often lonely, draws the stories of Station Eleven in hotel rooms at night.
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“You remembered.” “Of course,” Clark said. “That’s one thing I like about birthdays, they stay in one place. Same spot on the calendar, year in, year out.”
4. The Starship
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“Yes,” Kirsten said, “I’m aware of your opinion on the subject, but it remains my favorite line of text in the world.” She considered Dieter one of her dearest friends. The tattoo argument had lost all of its sting over the years and had become something like a familiar room where they met.
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Hell is the absence of the people you long for.
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“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance.”
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But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think—this will maybe sound weird—it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.” “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite—” “I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.” “You don’t think he likes his job, then.” “Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
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First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.
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Frank standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.
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He came upon other travelers sometimes, but so few. Almost everyone was moving south.
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This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air. Finally whispering the same two words over and over: “Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking.” He looked up and met the eyes of an owl, watching him from a snow-laden branch.
6. The Airplanes
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No one had any idea, it turned out. None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.
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She had been overtipping for as long as she’d had money. These small compensations for how fortunate she’d been.
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He lifted his mug, blew on the surface of his tea, and returned the mug very deliberately to the table. There was a studied quality to the movement, and Miranda had an odd impression that he was performing a scene.
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Clark had decided to also notify the ex-wives, even the most recent one whom he didn’t like very much, because it seemed wrong to let them read about it in the newspaper; he had an idea—too sentimental to speak aloud and he knew none of his divorced friends would ever own up to it—that something must linger, a half-life of marriage, some sense memory of love even if obviously not the thing itself. He thought these people must mean something to one another, even if they didn’t like one another anymore.
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She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.
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She wanted to speak to him, but speaking would take too much strength, so she looked at him instead—I see you, I see you—and hoped this was enough.
7. The Terminal
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Robert in the mornings: he liked to read a novel while he ate breakfast. It was possibly the most civilized habit Clark had ever encountered.
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What happened here was something like prayer.
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he’d harbored a secret pleasure in the thought that the world was waking up.
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walking alone for a hundred miles, whispering French to herself because all the horror in her life had transpired in English and she thought switching languages might save her,
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Even after all these years there were moments when he was overcome by his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquility, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in.
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Jeevan filled a pipe with tobacco from his shirt pocket, a soothing ritual. Trying to think of nothing but the stars and the sound of the river,
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He’d been spending more time in the past lately. He liked to close his eyes and let his memories overtake him. A life, remembered, is a series of photographs and disconnected short films:
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He woke to quiet voices. This had been happening more and more lately, this nodding off unexpectedly, and it left him with an unsettled intimation of rehearsal. You fall asleep for short periods and then for longer periods and then forever.
8. The Prophet
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Still, writing a play was an interesting idea. She began writing the first act on the shore the next morning, but never got past the first line of the opening monologue, which she’d envisioned as a letter: “Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.” She was distracted just then by a seagull, descending near her feet. It pecked at something in the rocks, and this was when she heard Dieter, approaching from the Symphony encampment with two chipped mugs of the substance that passed for coffee in the new world. “What were you writing?” he asked. “A play,” she said. She folded the paper. He smiled. “Well, I look forward to reading it.” She thought of the opening monologue often in the months that followed, weighing those first words like coins or pebbles turned over and over in a pocket, but she was unable to come up with the next sentence. The monologue remained a fragment, stuffed deep in her backpack until the day, eleven months later, when the Symphony unearthed it in the hours after the clarinet was seized by the prophet’s men and wondered if they were looking at a suicide note.
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She tried to concentrate on the sound, but music had always unmoored her, and her thoughts drifted.
9. Station Eleven
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He closed the fridge door, made his last breakfast—scrambled eggs—and showered, dressed, combed his hair, left for the theater an hour early so he’d have time to linger with a newspaper over his second-to-last coffee at his favorite coffee place, all of the small details that comprise a morning, a life.
Reading Group Guide
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SUGGESTED READING Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood The Passage by Justin Cronin The Dog Stars by Peter Heller The Stand by Stephen King The Road by Cormac McCarthy Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell King Lear by William Shakespeare A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley