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Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.
Old books inside the library of Strahov, Prague. (Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

Old books inside the library of Strahov, Prague. (Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

In 1908, a confrerie of itinerant Christian businessmen from the Midwest started a fund that would place abridged editions of the Bible in every American hotel room. They called themselves the Gideons, after the Lord's servant in Judges 6-7:

13 And Gideon said unto him, Oh my Lord, if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.

14 And the Lord looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites.

Unlike their namesake, the Gideon evangelicals wielded not swords but solace, curating successive editions of their Bible with a table of contents arranged for practical use: Selected passages are billed as suitable for “comfort in time of adversity, sorrow, loneliness, suffering,” etcetera. But does the Gideon Bible really save lives? The answer is probably yes. Even a lapsed Episcopalian such as I have found moments of peace and grace in hotel rooms where my only other companion was some quiet phantasm of guilt or doubt or dread. Any man with an ounce of humility will be soothed by 2 Corinthians 12:

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

In the West, the Bible—however we translate or truncate or rearrange its contents—is the original manual for what we call self-help. But even the most ardent Christian readers tend to expand their literary scope in harried moments, or more serious bouts of depression. Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in the 1620s (it would see half a dozen expansions before Burton's death) is a collagist account of depression, aligning precepts from classical and Renaissance writers with the author's own mordant and satirical interpretations and faux-scholastic digressions. Burton's title is hardly less ambitious than his project: to consider human mood through every available lens, from those of the pre-Socratic philosophers to the more recent natural philosophies and psychologies of the Enlightenment. The lifetime collation, a sort of running commentary on the consolations and the failures of philosophy, was also Burton's balm. From the preface: “I write of melancholy, by being busie, to avoid melancholy.”

Burton's book proved a balm for others, too, including Samuel Johnson, whose depression led to lethargy and indolence. (Journalists—take heart! Johnson was the most prolific procrastinator in history, dashing off his 1,200-word newspaper essays in half an hour and filing them, unread, minutes before the paper went to press.) James Boswell attests in his biography of Johnson that "Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ... was the only book that ever took [Johnson] out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise." Johnson's own moral essays, in turn, were a chief delight of Jane Austen, who liked referring to him as “my dear Dr. Johnson.”

Literary tonics are passed down through endorsement and imitation. We inherit and re-arrange various modes of comfort-reading, and the inheritance itself can be comfort.

Literary tonics, then, are passed down through endorsement and imitation. We inherit and re-arrange various modes of comfort-reading, and the inheritance itself can be comfort: The sufferings of idols are soothing to the man or woman who opens The Rambler and says, these vices and sorrows are mine as well. A shiver of recognition, a moment of fellowship with an author we have never met, these can ease a bad day, a bad week, or—for too many people—a recurring melancholia that will be their companion for life.

By “comfort-reading” I mean something personal and acritical: relief via immersion or escapism or something like the “relatability” that Rebecca Mead skewered so cordially last month in the New Yorker. In considering the question I solicited recommendations from literary communities on Twitter and Facebook; some respondents dabble in the printed word, while others are innocent civilians in the matter. Various blocs began to configure themselves, including populous (and overlapping) advocates for P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Each of these authors is British, a trend that Carrie Frye was quick to comment on: “British = comforting, I guess.” Frye also recommends Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl, and I owe her no small debt for reminding me of Danny the Champion of the World and its psychotropic raisins. Dickens is not the lone representative of the Victorians—Noah McCormack of the Baffler endorses Anthony Trollope as dependable comfort-reading. (He also recommends Harry Potter.)

George Eliot trails the Wodehouse/Austen/Christie by only a few votes (Rachel Monroe turns to Middlemarch, and Mead wrote a whole book about the practical virtues of the novel). E.B. White, too, charts quite high, both for his non-fiction and for Charlotte's Web. Beyond Charlotte and Wilbur, children's books made rather a splash in the polls, with J.K. Rowling amply represented alongside A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Kenneth Grahame's TheWind in the Willows. “Really any children's book, but especially Narnia and Anne of Green Gables,” Janet Potter says. Nick Andersen, meanwhile, enjoins us to read The Phantom Tollbooth “at least once a year, every year.” And then (as though the cockles and ventricles of my heart weren't dancing already) we saw dozens of votes for Calvin & Hobbes, another brilliant exercise (not entirely unlike Burton's) in the marriage between philosophy and comedy.

Given that food is a traditional comfort-delivery system, it should not surprise us that Brian Jacques' Redwall series received significant electoral representation, what with all those virtuous mice and fearsome badgers and most of all the feasts—the feasts!—“big wheels of cheese with crusty bread and dandelion tea,” as Cat Ferguson notes, while food writer Willy Blackmore commends the vividness of the Redwall pantries: “I didn't know what a damson plum was when I read those books, but I knew that I wanted to eat one.”

Also, speaking of food and heartbreak, Briallen Hopper is but one of several to recommend Nora Ephron.

Elsewhere, Isaac Asimov and Edward Gibbon (Benjamin Harnett); Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters (John Lingan); George Saunders (Porochista Khakpour); The Quiet American (Nathan Deuel); “anything I read before the age of 16” (Iris Blasi); and, more broadly, “anything where a girl is sad but then it all turns out OK” (Rachel Monroe).

One is sometimes inclined to sidestep escapism and go right to the heart of the matter, for which the literature of melancholy—Burton, Johnson, Woolf, William Styron—proves invaluable. I once found myself losing a firm grip in a very loud part of a very foreign country, and Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, about the author's breakdown in France, helped me hold fast. Laugh if you like, and roll high those eyes, but the book remains a bracingly lucid account of depression—“quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because it cannot be borne.” (Styron takes his title from Paradise Lost, another excellent volume to read in times of crisis.)

“Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul,” Johnson writes, “which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.” The job of the melancholic, then, is to maintain a steady effervescence of ideas and impressions, by which rust may dissipate and the world reclaim some of its shine. As Faiza S. Khan reminds us: “For death, divorce, and disease, really only Wodehouse can guarantee light at the end of the tunnel.” I'm inclined to agree. If you're in search of a sure thing, Wodehouse is about the sharpest thoroughbred in the race. But then perhaps there are darker times, when a specially tailored body of scripture or Johnson's The Rambler, with a table of contents that rather resembles the Gideons', is what the moment requires.

In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell describes having been saved from suicide at 17 by a revelation he found in a book of mathematics. There is no right or wrong comfort-reading, merely what works and what does not. Books don't save as many lives as modern vaccines, but they save a portion, and various of our contemporaries, whom we might never suspect, have lived because they found a kindred-suffering spirit among the buckram volumes of a local library.