Feeling down is common – whether it’s from heartbreak, academic or social pressure, or even just as a sudden, unexplainable situation. Sometimes it’s filled with intense emotions, but sometimes it’s this sense of numbness or not knowing what emotions you are feeling. Whatever it is, it’s not a happy place for anyone. Some people would want to curl up and do nothing, others try to measure how good each day is by the number of things they’ve managed to tick off a list. Yet, more often than not, these self-imposed notions of “I have to do something” results in eroding the happiness you derive from each activity you do or makes you unable to focus on the present.
Reading can fulfill many wishes that you might have when you’re feeling down – whether it’s escaping reality (even for just a little bit) and cheering you up with out of the world scenarios and humour or offering you a sense of companionship: to let you know that you’re not alone in the emotions that you’re feeling.
This piece will offer some books that my peers and I have found to be helpful in cheering us up in our hardest times or have offered tremendous advice and support. In addition, I’ve came up with some ideas that you might want to consider when you’re reading to overcome some of the issues with focusing or reading that feeling down might bring.
In no way is this list of books and advice comprehensive – I cannot pretend that it is. All I wish is that these books and advice that have helped me through a hard time can also help you get to a happier place.
I. Book List
Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan (Sequels: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems)
Probably no other novel series I’d recommend more at the moment: humour-packed, Asian-centric novel which is a novelty to Western literature, and an incredibly easy and uplifting read.
California Summers – Anita Hughes
A beachy, empowering romance novel that has an inspiring plot on following your dreams and giving up what’s holding you back.
The Art of Racing In the Rain – Garth Stein
One of my favourite books of all time and one that I would unequivocally recommend. A touching novel about a dog, who believes that those who are ready will reincarnate into humans, and his journey to achieve this dream while helping his owner cope through tectonic changes in their lives.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
Perhaps one of the more controversial and challenged novels of all time, Alexie’s novel depicts the struggle of being a Native Americans in a society where Native Americans have historically and continuously been marginalized. It is a true, no-holds-barred description of a bleak situation, populated with dark humour around topics such as alcoholism and sex that will lift your mood and empower you to see the world in a lighter way.
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
More of a self-help novel than literature, this novel discusses the notion of “needing to find one’s destiny.” When everything seems so hopeless, readers can and should take comfort in this line found from the novel: “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true”
Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom (as well as The Five People You Meet in Heaven)
Albom’s novel explores the themes of living and dying through providing an almost casual way of understanding the process of death as well as the importance of preserving one’s dignity in such a process. I believe that readers who are feeling down themselves can relate to the central message the Albom seeks to convey – dying and death are natural processes that we should regard as, ultimately, natural events. In a way, perhaps through this novel, readers can come to the realization that their own experiences with sadness/numbness may also be a “natural” phase, and that as long as they persevere and hold faith, everything will be okay.
Looking For Alaska – John Green
Looking for Alaska is an immersive novel that takes on a series of heavy issues – searching for meaning, dealing with grief/internal conflict, and holding onto hope. Green’s writing style not only creates highly relatable characters, but also creates an ultra-realistic environment that, despite all the pain the characters go through, leaves the reader asking for more. This novel is truly a work that felt “incomplete” where the readers are not fed an ending but encouraged to seek their own understanding/answers to the themes and questions that Green discusses.
Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Martin’s Game of Thrones series would offer a solid read for those who enjoyed the HBO series. Personally, I found the book series quite long – but for those who are looking for something that draws them in for an extended amount of time (which can be helpful when you’re not feeling at your best), Martin’s Game of Thrones is definitely read-athon material. Just be prepared for a lot of your favourite characters meeting unfortunate endings.
In general, “serious” novels are not recommended when you’re feeling down or depressed. However, in my own experience, I’ve found that certain literary works made me feel understood or offered a fresh new perspective on my own struggles. Here is a list of “serious” literary works that have been most hard-hitting, profound, or helpful to me in times of emotional strife.
Silence – Shusaku Endo
A Japanese novel that explores the notion of confronting adversity through the lens of Jesuit missionaries preaching during the brutal persecution of Christians in feudal Japan. Endo’s novel somberly and beautifully depicts their desperation and wavering faith in the face of a God that remained silent in their suffering. Perhaps one of the most tragically beautiful novels I’ve ever read, it is bound to bring new perspectives to readers, allowing them to reconsider their own experiences of adversity in a positive light. Slightly difficult to get through, but I believe those who are going through emotional strife can appreciate the journey of reading this novel.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
A literary masterpiece that discusses the themes of guilt and atonement. Though unorthodox as a novel to read when feeling down, I’ve found the profound nature of this novel to help in redirecting my thoughts from emotional numbness or sadness to focusing on appreciating how this novel is written.
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
A piece of literature that would most likely give the reader some (potentially awful) flashbacks to high school English class, Fitzgerald’s piece is beautifully written. Though some readers may want to steer away from this novel because of the memories of reading it in English class settings, I highly recommend this work as a way to redirect your thoughts from emotional numbness to uncovering the subtle beauty in Fitzgerald’s writing.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
Another literary masterpiece that should be read regardless. In the context of helping someone that’s feeling down, this novel expounds on the theme of solitude and seeing love as a pathway to escape the egocentricity that society promotes. It offers a new take on “feeling alone” that those who do feel alone in their suffering would appreciate.
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s novel discusses the themes of sexuality and loneliness in the context of college life – in particular the notion of isolation stemming from living alone in college and the effects of societal conceptions of appropriateness (through repression of sexuality). For those feeling alone after transitioning to a new environment or still struggling to come to terms with their sense of sexuality, Norwegian Wood is a recommended read.
Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Plath’s only novel is a powerful work that details the protagonist’s struggle with mental illness. Mirrored after Plath’s own experiences with mental illness, Bell Jar is a dark and hard-hitting read. Though difficult, I believe it is a novel that would offer anyone dealing with mental illness or emotional strife companionship and a sense of being understood, as Plath’s writing – influenced by her own experiences – clearly conveys the pain and emotional struggle that comes with mental illnesses.
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
A profound literary classic, Hugo’s Les Miserables is recommended, not simply because I found its characters’ viewpoints life-changing, but because of its theme of the possibility of change in all man, regardless of how morally corrupt or virtuous. It’s a difficult and thick read, but for those who enjoyed the movie or the musical, or even those who are confronted by thoughts of the inability to change who they are, I highly recommended this book.
Party of One – Anneli Rufus
Slightly unconventional novel about society’s perception of loneliness as it comments on how the stigma associated with being alone perpetuates a social message that, once “loners” buy into, actually hurts more. While all of us should confront feelings of loneliness in our own ways, I’d recommend this novel as it’s an interesting read that has a positive message: lonely people shouldn’t be viewed as “damaged goods” that needs to be fixed, as everyone has their own merits. It is possibly a work that could challenge and alter the way we view loneliness.
Anything in your professional field (i.e. I’m currently reading Destined For War)
Whenever you’re feeling down and wanting something to focus on, reading books in your professional field or your major could help. It allowed me to feel like I’ve done something with my time and it felt rewarding because, even though I’m using that time to recover, I’m still expanding my knowledge base. Give it a try, but again, know yourself – if reading academic books bore you especially when you’re feeling down, it could be a hint that you need a “chill” book.
II. Reading Advice
At its core, reading should help you clear your mind in a time where thoughts can seem incredibly overwhelming
Get comfortable – whether it’s curling up on the sofa with a comforter in the winter or turning the air-conditioner on in the er, you need to find a way to put your body at ease before your mind can relax
Set a reading time for yourself – with a cluttered mind, it might be tempting to measure your day by how “productive” you are nce even when you’re reading, you feel the need to get up and do something else that is more “meaningful” Setting a reading time allows you to know that in that X hour(s), the time is yours to really dive into a book.
Remember what reading is for – reading isn’t unproductive, nor should it be a forceful chore. If you don’t enjoy a book or that it’s a grind to get through, no matter how acclaimed it is, remember that you can put it down and come back to it later on.
Location, location, location! Everyone has a favourite spot on the couch when they’re watching TV – reading is just like . There’re places where you’ll find reading difficult, and there are places where you just feel at ease lying back and enjoying a good book. I’d really recommend that you take the time to find that perfect spot for yourself – it’ll take some time, but some good places to start out are: your bed, your couch, your local café, on a beanbag, or even on a yoga ball. Wherever you choose, make sure that you feel comfortable there.
Accompaniments? Just like watching a good movie, make sure you’re content while reading. Grab some coffee or your favourite a, have your favourite bag of chips next to you, or even have some of your favourite songs playing in the background. If the music gets too distracting, hopping on Spotify and playing some ambient or natural sounds in the background always helps me clear my mind. The bottom line is, reading shouldn’t be stressful or frustrating, once you find that perfect book and space, reading will become something that allows you to escape your thoughts and arrive at a better place! :)