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Life-Affirming Reads

September 21, 2012 | by

Dear Paris Review,

I am currently suffering from a major depression, which has caused me to lose my job and my relationship. I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and I believe and hope I’m beginning to recover. I have been a major reader all my life, but the depression has made it difficult for me to concentrate, so I haven’t been able to read much lately. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of books I’ve read before many times (Darkness Visible, Diving Into the Wreck), trying to get something from them.

I suppose I’m looking for two different types of book as I recover: books that will show me why to live and how, and books that will allow me to escape my present torture. Both need to be pretty easy to follow—for instance, I recently bought The Myth of Sisyphus after reading William Styron’s reference too it, but it’s too difficult for my slow brain right now.

Thank you.

Dear friend,

I’ve been where you are and know exactly the state you describe: one of the many distressing aspects of depression is the inability to lose yourself—and for those of us who have always found comfort in books, this is particularly scary. It goes without saying that everyone’s recovery process is different, and without a sense of your exact tastes—although it is clear you are an ambitious and curious reader with wide-ranging interests—it is a little tricky to suggest comfort reads. (After all, that is so bound up with one’s history and associations, no?) But I can tell you what has worked for me, and for some people I know, and hope that the suggestions, and the knowledge that you are in good company, will prove helpful.

My first suggestion might seem counterintuitive, and maybe cheesy, but I can only say that it helped me a lot: reading about depression. I do not mean fiction that deals with depressive episodes—at its best, it’s hideously evocative, at worst it risks romanticizing the subject, and neither is remotely helpful—but, rather, things like You Are Not Alone (whose title alone I found very comforting) and, especially, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind. Your exact experience may not correspond to Dr. Jamison’s—she suffers from bipolar disorder—but I found her struggles and her hard-won successes tremendously inspiring and deeply comforting. It is crucial to be with others who understand, and that applies, I think, to books, too. I happened to hear Dr. Jamison speak once, and she said something that really stuck with me: We don’t tend to hear about, or see, the success stories when it comes to mental-health struggles. Because of the stigma attached, the many, many people who manage to live happy, productive lives are not our poster children. Rather, it is so often the untreated whom we identify with these disorders. You may feel isolated, but you are not alone, and an articulate, compelling reminder of that fact was, to me, a real lifeline.

But that doesn’t really address your questions. As to escape, I think your impulse toward the familiar is a wholesome one. Have you tried going really far back—to childhood? When all else fails, this can work, not least because they tend to be designed for those with short attention spans. And it can be a real pleasure to rediscover John Bellairs, Roald Dahl, or, in my case, Betsy-Tacy. Small increments are also good: have you read The Pillow Book, by Sei Shōnagon? Short stories are an obvious solution, but proceed with caution when selecting. Essays can be easier; Clive James’s brief profiles in Cultural Amnesia are digestible but stimulating, while Davy Rothbart’s recent collection, My Heart Is an Idiot, is heartwarming and sweetly funny (as opposed to ha-ha funny, which is probably not what you are in the mood for). To each his own, of course, but I also find cookbooks and food essays (particularly Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking (and any early Elizabeth David) useful. They can also help stimulate a flagging appetite. There is a reason soldiers in the trenches of World War I turned to Jane Austen; order is supremely comforting! As far as escapism goes, I would say, don’t be self-critical. If it brings you pleasure and takes you out of yourself, that’s all that matters. I have one friend who enjoys escaping into Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, while another enjoys the formulaic comfort of mystery series. There’s a reason certain books become best sellers: whatever their literary failings, they take people away. Consider genre fiction, if it will help, and damn the critics!

Life-affirming? Well, there are two things, really: inspirational sentiments and sheer beauty of language. War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn, The Dead, Middlemarch, Disgrace, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, A Sentimental Education, The Brothers Karamazov—all these are books that reaffirm, for me, something essentially optimistic. Others—Children of Gebelawi, In Search of Lost Time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, most any Faulkner, The Magic Mountain, Things Fall Apart, The Tale of Genji, Moby-Dick, The Orchard, Pedro Páramo—will simply awe you. If those all seem too daunting, what about poetry? One woman I know says Wordsworth is what got her through the toughest time of her life.

Does this help a little? I hope so. I also hope our readers will contribute more suggestions in the comments section, as I would love to hear from those with a range of points of view. But most of all, have courage, and know how much joy there is out there. You will feel it again.

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« Older Comments
  1. Jim Earp | September 24, 2012 at 4:04 am

    I’ve endured my share of depression, and I’ve found Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series curative; Also T. H. White’s “Once and Future King” and “Mistress Masham’s Repose.” You might also have a look at the first two books of C. S. Lewis adult “Perelandra” trilogy (then decide if you want to go on to the third. “Till We Have Faces,” also by Lewis, can be quite a riveting comfort. Lewis and White are relatively easy to read, and once you’ve got your sea legs with O’Brian, he is too, and as Lewis Lapham has remarked, “I can think of no other set of books from which I have taken so much delight.”
    (Please forgive typos in previous post.)

  2. Ruben | September 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    What about ‘The Art of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill’ by Matthieu Ricard?

  3. Sadie Stein | September 24, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    I just wanted to extend a quick thanks to all of you for these thoughtful recommendations. Some I wholeheartedly endorse, others are new to me. All are appreciated. Heartening and heart-warming!

  4. Marie | September 24, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron has helped me. I love Buddhist insights and the belief that the messy bits are our richness (to paraphrase her words from “Start Where You Are”). I suggest starting with bits and pieces of reading that draw you in, don’t rush into a work, but take it slowly.

  5. Shelley | September 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

    After his brother’s murder, Robert Kennedy evaded suicide by reading the Greek classics.

    They teach us what to expect: nothing.

  6. Patrick Holland | September 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I’d also recommend ‘War and Peace’, there’s so much life in it it can’t help but be life affirming. But also, try Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’, no one has the ability to translate the joys of living onto the page like Hemingway, after that I’d go for his ‘Green Hills of Africa’, perhaps the most underrated book in his canon. Then a good travel book can keep you up, not by distracting you, but turning you on to what’s truly good in the world … Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’ is a great one, and Barry Lopez’s travel essays ‘About this Life’ are just brilliant and always lift me out of my own thoughts. Go well … and hope these help

  7. Alison Hodgson | September 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    After an arsonist randomly burned down my house I turned to the Bible, Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse.

    I noticed some others recommend Barbara Pym and agree but stay away from “The Sweet Dove Died” as it is not a pick me up, at all.

    Laurie Colwin is a sure thing too. If you read “Home Cooking” you will probably want her to adopt you but be warned: she died years ago and entirely too young.

    Going back to Wodehouse, focus on the Bertie and Jeeves stories or anything with Blandings Castle and you can’t go wrong.

    Depression sucks. I hope you get some relief.

  8. Helen | September 25, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I suggest Catcher in the Rye. Reacquaint yourself with Holden Caulfield and you will smile.

  9. Benjamin W. | September 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Maybe you don’t want to be reading when you are depressed. What about going to see a movie or going to a play? Being around people might be more beneficial than being around books.

  10. Susie Neilson | September 28, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Read the Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffeneger. The romance is cathartic to read about; you’ll cry and regain faith in humanity (at least, I have.)

    Or read Harry Potter. I’ve never regretted a reread.

  11. Jody | September 30, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    During my episodes, I turn to poetry. It is brief and often full of emotional connection. William Carlos Williams and Kay Ryan are both accessible and easy to find.

  12. Loyola Kane | October 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Books on mythology are helpful, as mythology exists to offer affirmation and meaning in the face of futility. As Joseph Campbell said, mythology was created because to live and to be aware of our mortality is a crisis that needs to be addressed. During my worst periods of depression I found great solace in The Hero’s Journey.

  13. Loyola Kane | October 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    That should be “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” The Hero’s Journey is also a good book.

  14. Ahioka | October 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Hi, been through that too, couldn’t understand what I was reading. So I waited, untill I asked one of my brothers an easy book, he suggested “Noveciento: pianist” from Alessandro Baricco. Very short, easy to read and simply excellent for your state of mind. Then if you like the author there’s also “Océan mer” ( maybe sea ocean in english). After reading Noveciento I had an uncredible thirst for books, I think once you’ll read something you like you will want to read more and more and it will become easier. At least it was like this for me… Courage and remember that it’s just a phase. Everything changes…

  15. Simon | October 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Few writers are more life-affirming than Miriam Toews. Her memoir, Swing Low, about her father’s fight with depression is on the nose. But better yet, try her fiction. Her latest novel Irma Both leaves you grateful to be alive, ready to take anything on. In every paragraph there’s a little hint that you should carry on and try again, you laugh and cry at the same time. And there’s Saul Bellow too, Augie March. Or what about E.M. Forster’s Room With A View: the eternal “yes!”

  16. John Williams | October 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    I would expand on Wes Tirey’s comment: I discovered William James during a rough patch and found him nourishing. It really felt like finding a friend. I can’t recommend “The Varieties of Religious Experience” highly enough. Maybe for when you’re feeling less slow-brained, but then again James writes very clearly about very complicated issues.

    Whatever you find in books, or outside them, I hope you feel better soon.

  17. joHN lEWIS | October 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Has anyone mentioned Tolstoy’s “The Confession?”

  18. Jlenia | October 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Oh man, I identify with that feeling so hard. When I’m really in a bad place I find it almost impossible to concentrate. I always look for funny, quick things that don’t make me lonelier (the “escape” side of the question). I’d highly recommend David Sedaris essay collections, but I got over my most recent dark time reading (of all people!) Tucker Max and Cat Marnell. They made it easier for me to feel like it was okay to stay in bed.

  19. bob | October 12, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Zorba the Greek.
    Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

    Someone suggested Wodehouse, which made me wonder, given the USAian bias here, if anyone knows E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels.

  20. Lesley | November 16, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Judy Blume, “Just as Long as We’re Together”? It’s about three young girls who are best friends. Easy to read and concentrate on. Sympathetic, not ironic. Some gently hilarious parts about things like what kinds of posters kids hang on their walls. It might distract you from your pain part of the time, and make you feel like the person who wrote the book is empathizing with you the rest of the time. Also: what about Harlequin romances? From the ones I’ve read they all seem to be really nice, with happy endings and gripping story lines. And easy to read.

  21. Andrea | November 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    I use to have depression. Not anymore since taking a Vitashine Vitamin D3 5000iu capsule. Amazing vegan product.

    I don’t work for the company. Only sharing my experience.

  22. Sam Zhang | December 10, 2013 at 2:28 am

    For poems, I once came across an anthology called Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times at a bookstore, and I remember it having more than a few pieces that spoke to me.

  23. ordinarylifelessordinary | June 4, 2015 at 6:27 am

    Can I recommend The Doctor’s Daughter by Vanessa Matthews? The protagonist, Marta, wrestles with depression and self-harm habits as she struggles to work through a web of family lies and find her identity in male-dominated 1920s Vienna. Whilst there are dark moments, the story has a positive an uplifting resolution without being cheesy, simplistic or glamourising mental health concerns. Marta’s transformation is slow and at times she goes backwards rather than forwards, but that gives it a realistic feel. Evolution not revolution.The link is here…*Version*=1&*entries*=0

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