The pandemic has left many of us depressed, lonely or a little traumatized. To cope with the anxiety and the loss of most of their normal activities, many people are taking comfort in books. They’ve intuitively stumbled upon what’s called bibliotherapy: reading to promote mental health. In that spirit, we at SPL decided to put together a therapeutic reading list.
In recent months, books and TV shows about pandemics have been extremely popular—perhaps because they provide a way for people to confront their fears. During the spring Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand (about a strain of influenza that wipes out most of humanity) was on Amazon’s 20 Most Read list for five weeks and the 2011 film Contagion was on iTunes’ top movies list in March.
If pandemic-themed reading appeals to you, here are some suggestions:
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Considered by some to be one of the greatest love stories ever, the romance of the young Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza is forcibly ended by Fermina’s father. But Florentino refuses to give up his hopes for Fermina, and their love gets a second chance--fifty years later. It’s a beautiful, lush novel about love in a world where death is a constant presence.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel of alternative history, the bubonic plague all but wipes out the Caucasian race during the Middle Ages and the Chinese Empire and the Muslim caliphates become the dominant players in world history. But it’s more of a social than a political history, following the lives of ordinary Chinese, Arab, Japanese and Native American men and women as their lives intersect in Robinson’s brilliantly imagined world.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Most of humanity has been killed by a mutation of swine flu. There are no countries, no borders: only scattered small towns separated by wilderness. A company of actors called the Travelling Symphony roams the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare for audiences in these isolated communities. When they arrive at a town under the control of a religious fanatic known as “The Prophet,” he soon sees the Symphony, and what they stand for, as a threat to his rule. The Symphony quickly leaves The Prophet’s domain, but a confrontation with him and his forces has nevertheless become inevitable. Station Eleven won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
For those of you don’t want to read anything pandemic related - perhaps you might prefer books to help you cope with difficult times, or just take comfort in life? Here are some suggestions.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher as well as ruler of the Roman Empire. For centuries, readers have taken comfort and strength from the advice he gives in his book Meditations, such as “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment,” or “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury,” and “Love the people with whom fate brings you together.” Some people are daunted by the thought of reading a 2,000 year-old book with the unenticing title Meditations, but psychotherapist Donald Robinson wrote a very reader-friendly introduction to Aurelius’s teachings called How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. After reading it you probably won’t be ready to become ruler of the known world, but you may be able to deal with life’s ups and downs a little more calmly.
During the pandemic, many Americans have turned to mindfulness meditation as a way to cope with depression and stress. But what’s often left out of discussions of the practice is that the ultimate goal is to incorporate mindfulness into your entire life. In Peace is Every Step, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh shows you how to do that—or at least get started. In simple language, Nhat Hanh explains how to pull away from your distractions and troubles and come back to yourself, whether you’re doing the dishes or sitting in traffic or having trouble getting to sleep.
And if any of you reading this are parents feeling the strain of spending too much time with your kids, you might find reading Shirley Jackson’s memoir Raising Demons helpfully cathartic. The title says it all.