Existential crisis reading

I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster lately; I’ve been going through something like an existential crisis, for reasons there is no need to go into, except to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people were experiencing something similar right now, given the state of the world, and this has made me think about how my reading relates to my emotional state. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has no trouble reading depressing books, someone who can pick up bleak, despairing novels and come away from them filled with sorrow over injustice and sadness at suffering, but still able to put things in perspective and to figure out how to go on. I tend to think of sad books as offering bracing insights into the true nature of things, and I think of myself as someone who wants to know the truth about how things really are.

And I still believe these things about myself.  But my faith in my ability to read sad books has been put to the test lately, as I’ve matched my emotional roller coast experience with some incredibly sad books in such a way that has sent me reeling.  The sad books I’m talking about are Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, both of which I enjoyed (I will write about them in more detail later) and both of which made me despair.  It’s funny the way sometimes your reading matches your mood, and sometimes this works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t.  I didn’t know what I was getting into with either of these books (I read one because a friend gave it to me for Christmas and the other because it’s been on my shelves for a while and I thought a book about bookshops might be nice), but it turned out they both had something to say about things I’ve been pondering.  I appreciate that chance or fate or whatever is bringing along books that make me think and seem to speak to me personally, but sometimes this kind of convergence can be overwhelming, and this is one of those times.

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about comfort reading; it’s fairly new, actually, for me to consciously turn to a book for comfort.  I mean, I found comfort in books and retreated to them when other parts of life were overwhelming, but I didn’t tend to pick up specific books that I thought would make me feel better.  I didn’t have the category “comfort reading” in mind when choosing a book.  I would reread books now and then, which is the closest thing to comfort reading I had, but I didn’t tend to think of that rereading in comforting terms — it was just something I did when I felt like it.

This has changed lately, largely due to hearing other people talk about comfort reads, and I’m more aware of choosing books for their comforting qualities and more likely to pick up something light when I feel I need to.  But still, in spite of knowing better, there’s a part of me that feels that if I pick up a comfort read I’m seeking an escape that’s too easy.  It’s one more manifestation of the curse of the puritan work ethic, I suppose, a work ethic I’ve been thoroughly, soundly, completely cursed with.

I have, you will probably be happy to know, recently picked up a comfort read, and many thanks to Musings from the Sofa for lending me a particularly good one — it’s E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia, and so far it’s been a lot of fun.  It’s probably exactly what I need.  I think I’ll go read a bit of it and see if it makes me feel better.


Filed under Books, Life, Reading

16 responses to “Existential crisis reading

  1. zhiv

    Hang in there D! Great, thoughtful, heartfelt post, if that’s any solace. And I know exactly what you’re talking about–I remember reading Jude the Obscure back in the day at just such a moment. The Assistant was literally the only book I read in high school (didn’t start reading until college), and I have no memory at all what might be depressing about it, but I look forward to your post. You’re better off having done “tough”/puritan work ethic reading in the past, but taking a break and lightening up is always a good idea. You’re smart and strong and things will work themselves out. With sympathy that you’re feeling low.


  2. Thank you very much Zhiv. I really do love your comments. Funny thing is, instead of sitting down with Queen Lucia just now, I picked up a Virginia Woolf story, and it turned out to be about suffering, but in typical Woolf fashion, it went back and forth between sadness and exhilaration and it did so in such a way that made me feel better. Sometimes the serious stuff is more comforting than comfort reading. Sometimes. But now on to Queen Lucia.


  3. Sorry you have been feeling grim. I don’t know the circumstances but I am sure the state of the world is impinging on all of us. I have taken refuge in reading – not necessarily comfort reading, but reading as defence against the grimness out there. It may be an escape, but it works.


  4. Oh poor Dorothy. As you know, I’ve had my share of existential crises over the past few years, and using reading to help lighten my mood and distract me from my worries has always been a very good move. E. F. Benson is wonderful comfort reading, and a classic author, too. I would also recommend Modjeska’s The Orchard, as it is one of those books that takes a step back to consider things in a gentle, philosophical way – nothing bad happens. And David Lodge’s campus novels can be very entertaining too. And they are all top quality authors. Sending lots of virtual hugs, too.


  5. January always seems to me a tough month–it’s so dark and cold (right now very cold), and even though it’s a new year, which seems such a positive thing, it’s still not spring! It doesn’t help that watching the news can be a depressing activity as well. Maybe that is effecting your reading mood? I tend to read lots of comfort read types of books, but I don’t necessarily consciously search them out (at least not as an antidote to how I’m feeling rather than I think the stories just appeal to me). That said I think I’ve mentioned this before that I tend to stay away from books like The Kite Runner for example–a book I expect to be sad (at least in part)as it is too close to a very grim reality. I think that if I did read it (or another book like it) I would be just fine, but it’s not really a story I am drawn to right now. In any case I hope you click with whatever you choose to read whether its EF Benson or Virginia Woolf!


  6. So sorry to hear you are feeling down. The world right now seems to be going to hell in a handbasket and listening to the news ends up making me want to cry. It’s ok to escape into a book with no other intent but to escape. You are such a purposeful, intelligent reader that it is fine to let go of that now and then. I hope your mood lifts soon.


  7. I too am sorry to hear that you are feeling down. Danielle is right — cold, gray, January is a tough month to get through. Reading cold, gray books doesn’t make it any easier. Consciously choosing a book that you know is uplifting, or has a hopeful ending, isn’t a bad thing. It might be great literature or it might be a mind-candy paperback, but if it restores your mental outlook, then it was a “good read.”

    I highly recommend Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, well-written, imaginative, and just plain old charming.


  8. I can relate to the Puritan work ethic (but I tend to rebel against it as much as I can). Sorry you’re feeling a bit down and I hope the comfort reading, and the serious reading which is also comforting, does its thing. I find well-written depressing books suprisingly comforting – maybe it’s about allowing ourselves to mourn losses etc.


  9. I’d like to echo Debby’s recommendation of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – an absolutely delightful adult fairy tale! It’s hard not to smile while reading it.


  10. verbivore

    I sincerely hope you are feeling better soon and perhaps some comfort reading will speed that process along. I share some of the same ambivalence about reading a book for the pure pleasure of it (meaning it will only make me feel better, not necessarily ask me to think about anything important). But in the end those quiet moments are some of the best for getting me out of a funk or helping recharge batteries, which means I finally stopped listening to my inner Puritan. 🙂


  11. Oops, that would be affecting….my mind tends to turn to mush in the evening after a long day/week at work…


  12. Yeah, I’m going through an existential crisis too. I tend to be hypersensitive to sad novels during times like this as well, so I turn to people like David Sedaris to lift my spirits a bit. Reading doesn’t have to be so scholarly and serious all the time!


  13. I’ve never thought about comfort reading as a specific genre or type of book that I turn to, but I do find great comfort in the books I read. Even if the book is not necessarily happy or uplifting, it still takes me out of my present situation for at least a little while.


  14. Charlotte — yes, I suspect many people are feeling this way, and it’s wonderful to have an escape. The problem has been compounded by being on break between semesters; I think I’ll do better when I’m working more. Busyness provides its own distraction.

    Litlove — thank you for all the recommendations! I’m enjoying the Benson greatly — it’s so fun. And Lodge is a wonderful comfort read; his sense of humor is great and it’s somehow comforting to read about messed-up academics 🙂 I would love to read The Orchard as well — something thoughtful and calm would help a lot. Thank you!!

    Danielle — yes, January is a hard month, and the news doesn’t help. I am checking the news online constantly, which is a very bad idea. The more I can stay away from the news, the calmer I feel, so I should take a lesson from that! And I know what you mean about The Kite Runner. Certain kinds of sad books I can handle, but ones that are about present-day injustice are particularly hard.

    Stefanie — you are so right. It’s not as though I’m never going to read a serious book again, right? If I read nothing but mysteries for the next three months, it wouldn’t matter. Thank you for being so sensible!

    Debby — I know you understand my current mood, and that helps! Miss Pettigrew is an excellent suggestion, and I’ll have to look around for a copy. And you are so right that reading something uplifting and happy can be a good thing — there’s no virtue in reading dark books after all!

    Pete — rebelling against the Puritan work ethic is an excellent thing, and I need to do more of it 🙂 But yes, depressing books can sometimes be comforting. For me, it depends on what kind of depressing we are talking about, and I’m not sure what makes the distinction. I’ll have to think about that more. The movie I saw today, Doubt, was very sad, but I felt better after having seen it.

    JoAnn — oh, good, I’m glad you recommend Miss Pettigrew too! I’ll have to make sure to get a copy.

    Verbivore — another one rebelling against the inner Puritan! That’s very good — I’ll have to follow your model. Whatever makes a person feel better (provided it’s safe and legal and all that!) is probably a good thing — and then they can go on with regular activities and I can get back to my usual books.

    Chartroose — I’m very sorry to hear about your existential crisis, although it’s nice to have some company! I hope the feeling passes very soon for you. David Sedaris strikes me as great crisis-reading — he’s funny and entertaining, but he has a fairly dark view of the world, which also can bring its own comfort.

    Lisa — yes, escape into another world can be so soothing. Thinking of it that way, anything with a good characters and an absorbing plot would do — anything to take my mind away from its usual thoughts for a while.


  15. I hope the feeling passes soon! I went through a very difficult period (before blogging) and the only thing I could read at the time were cozy mysteries. Eventually, I got back into more serious and/or demanding books but it actually did help me a lot to know that I could turn to some books in order to have some moments of comfort. And, I’ll echo Debby and JoAnn’s recommendation of Miss Pettigrew… Really lovely story.


  16. Thank you, Iliana. And I’m already feeling a bit better, although I imagine things will be up and down for a while. How great that those mysteries are available to help out. I’ll try to be better about turning to them or books like them when I need to!


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