It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. My chronic pain has been especially severe and, well, chronic lately, and world news has felt especially bad. It got me thinking: what books help you cope when things are difficult?
I think there are two components that make a book a good companion when you’re sad: catharsis and comfort. Cathartic books help me to process what I’m feeling, while comforting books help me to forget for awhile. I’ve found I need both kinds, although I tend toward catharsis. (My family jokes–kindly–about my love of traumatic and tear-jerking media.)
I’ve listed a few of my favorite sadness-companion books below, and I’d love to hear about your own favorites in the comments.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This is the newest addition to my list of go-to’s, but it’s a good one. Strayed’s blockbuster memoir documents the aftermath of her mother’s death–a painful divorce, casual heroin use, and a terrible dead-end feeling–and how, with nothing more to lose, she decided to spend a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being broke and brutally unprepared.
The result is a memoir that pushes the very limits of the form and is also tremendously inspiring–without, exactly, feeling inspirational. I devoured this book and highly, highly recommend it for anyone who has lost something–which is to say, everyone.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Also fairly new to its permanent home on my nightstand is this spectacular high fantasy novel, about an alternate version of medieval Europe where gods still make their presence known. Kushiel’s Dart manages to be both hardcore escapism and also a remarkable commentary on our own world. In the nation of Terre d’Ange, where most of the story takes place, love is a central religious precept, making sex a spiritual act, and rape a crime of heresy as well as violence. It’s deeply erotic but also deeply emotional, and the action and world-building are to die for.
The whole series is incredible (I’m currently halfway through the first book in a second, linked trilogy), and I can’t recommend it more highly to fantasy lovers who are sick of the endless iterations of Tolkien-lite.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
It’s hard to imagine myself loving any book as much as I love The Blind Assassin. It’s a sprawling, messy family epic set in early-20th century Canada, told in conjunction with a novel-within-a-novel that’s part sci-fi, part modernist tragedy. The Blind Assassin‘s protagonist, Iris, is vain, proud, and a bit foolish, and at first it seems like the novel will never get where it’s going, but when it does, the effect is something akin to a refreshing plunge into deep, cold water.
I re-read this book at least once every couple of years, and every time I do, I find something new to love. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a comforting story, it is comforting for me personally, because I’m reminded of the person I was all the times I read it before.
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
I distinctly remember “stealing” this book from my mother’s shelf when I was 11 or 12 years old; it was probably the first adult literary novel I ever read, so its emotional power felt especially fresh to me. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny Southwestern hometown to help support her aging father. It touches on all sorts of topics, from Kingsolver’s characteristic environmentalism to her equally characteristic explorations of motherhood.
Over ten years after I first read it, its cathartic highs and lows (and a lovely, hopeful ending) still make it one of the first books I reach for when I need to revisit a familiar and comforting world.
Do you tend towards catharsis or comfort reads when times are tough? Do you have any stories of times books helped you through a difficult situation? If you’re game to share, I’d love to read your thoughts below.