Life-Affirming Reads


Ask The Paris Review

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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