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“Read Emily Dickinson. Read Graham Greene. Read Italo Calvino. Read Maya Angelou. Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are Escape Routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”
– Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
When I’m going through a hard time or feeling low, I know deep inside that I just need to keep going – it will get better. But there are some things we can do to make it easier on ourselves. We can pour a good cup of tea. Get outside. Spend time with loved ones. Make some art. Do some yoga. And, of course, read.
Literature is humankind’s archive for every emotion out there – joy, love, depression, loss, excitement, heartbreak, regret, pain, suffering. It’s the best value-for-money life coach you’ll ever get your hands on. Books can comfort us where we are, show us how to get to where we want to be, and give us the confidence and self-belief we need to keep going. They can take us on a direct flight into a whole new world, departing as soon as you turn the first page.
Here are my bibliotherapy recommendations for the tough days. I hope they help you to relax, feel better when you’re feeling low, and bring some comfort if work, love, or just life is getting you down. Make a place for books alongside your self-care, community, and what matters most to you.
1. Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara
I love this poetry anthology, I really do. I was reminded of it recently while re-watching series two of Mad Men, in which Don Draper picks up a copy and reads us part of “Mayakovsky”. Meditations in an Emergency is an excellent collection – there’s a lot of good stuff in there – but I particularly love “Mayakovsky”.
I memorised Part 4 of the poem a few years ago, and bring it to mind when I’m having a tough day:
2. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim
I owe a lot to this book. It’s helped me through so much over the last year. When I was learning how to just be without others during a breakup, I came across the Kindle sample and immediately ordered the little hardback edition.
It’s not just about “how to be calm in a busy world”, it’s about how to live your life intentionally and be the most balanced version of yourself.
3. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
This was Matt Haig’s first book on mental health to hit the mainstream. I wrote about Notes on a Nervous Planet recently, his 2018 book on maintaining our wellbeing in an anxious world, but Reasons to Stay Alive is another good one – especially during times when we’re experiencing low mood or depression.
“I read and read and read with an intensity I’d never really known before. I mean, I’d always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books.”
Side note: I’m sure Matt would agree that getting help is the crucial first step if you think you’re experiencing depression, so please don’t put it off. Without therapy, I really can’t see how I could have achieved most of the things I have in the last five years.
4. The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike Book 1) by Robert Galbraith
“Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his.”
5. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry)
6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I created an index at the beginning of my copy so I can find my favourite sections, including some on work, finding purpose in our lives, and feeling low. It’s one of the most treasured books I own, alongside my first copy of War and Peace.
7. The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
they won’t be here for long
they still choose to live
their brightest lives
8. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
I’ve already mentioned Marcus Aurelius on this list, but William B. Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life is a really accessible way into stoic philosophy, as well as proof that it absolutely can be joyful.
9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”
10. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
This beautiful novel tells the story of four English women – strangers to each other – who decide to share an Italian castle for the month of April. The setting moves from drizzly London to the charismatic castle of San Salvatore, abundant with lilies and wisteria in full bloom, and the characters undergo both individual and group changes that could never have been expected.
“This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is…”