Reading is Good for you

Today is Blue Monday, the day when we’re all at our lowest here in the UK, apparently: theFrom Vintage website weather is grim, there are several months to get through before spring, the post-Christmas credit card bills are in, and the New Year’s resolutions are probably broken. Traditionally in the book trade it’s the time of year when a raft of self help books are unleashed on readers determined to beat the problem that stands between them and a happier, slimmer, more fulfilled life. They tend to being out the cynic in me but Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion, launched today, is a cut above the usual – twelve books, several published for some time, aimed at improving our mental and physical health. Obviously, it’s a marketing campaign and as such you might think it doesn’t deserve space on this blog but it’s a carefully chosen list and includes several books that I’ve read which seem altogether appropriate – Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Sarah Bakewell’s cleverly structured biography of Montaigne How to Live, Tim Parks’ experience of the link between mental and physical health Teach Us to Sit Still and Roger Deakin’s hymn to wild swimming Waterlog – all of which are uplifting in their way. Two others – Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, which kicks off the one-a-month promotion, and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree – were already on my TBR list. The only one I’d quibble with is Sebastian Faulks’ overlong Human Traces, a novel about the history of psychiatry which seemed to get lost in the author’s research.

If you like the idea but would prefer something of a less commercial persuasion there’s the ReadingReading Reading Well Books on Prescription titles (copyright The Reading Agency) Agency’s Reading Well initiative which has two strands – Reading Well Books on Prescription and Mood Boosting Books. It’s been running for several years and a second list of books chosen by readers was added to the Mood Boosting strand last year. I’m hoping to see my old favourite, The President’s Hat, on this year’s list should there be one. For me, it’s usually enough to lose myself in an absorbing piece of fiction, if I’m feeling down, something which in that good old-fashioned phrase takes me out of myself. Are there particular books that you turn to for consolation? Ones that have helped you through a difficult time?


13 thoughts on “Reading is Good for you”

  1. And I’ve just come back from the dentists! My favourite pick-me-up books are The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield and just about anything by Barbara Pym. I need books that are a little bit wry to perk me up. It’s a good list, though, by Vintage. Clever thinking to have intelligent non-fiction (in the main) rather than traditional self help.

    1. Oh! Much sympathy with that. Self help books make me squirm but I was very taken by this list, particularly How to Live. A clever choice which makes you want to read Montaigne, himself.

  2. I read The Examined Life last year after reading a review in the Guardian and enjoyed it, it’s brief and more of an overall summary of common conditions and their treatment than an in-depth at anything in particular, but what struck me most and the reason I bought it (which could well have been a marketing ploy if one takes a cynical view) was that he says he wrote it as a legacy to his small children, something he could leave them in terms of a condensed teaching from his life’s work, so not for an academic or commercial audience as such.

    I’ve been putting off Jeanette Winterson’s book, but really enjoyed Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road, the one who did very well out of that lottery that is adoption. On that subject the book Primal Wound was a real eye opener for me when I read it many moons ago.

    I lent Sarah Bakewell’s book to a friend before reading it, must get that one back!

    But the words I turn to to soothe the mind, when I’ve had enough of other people’s imaginative meanderings are usually words written by that excellent intellectual and sound thinker the Dalai Lama, he’s one of the few I can tolerate almost anything he has written, because it nearly always resonates and makes complete sense to me and never takes itself too seriously.

    1. The Examined Life was added to my TBR list after it appeared on the Reading Matters bloggers’ advent calendar back in December. I’m sure he meant what he said. I tend to be a bit cynical about publisher marketing – hence a little discomfort with writing a post about a campaign – but not so much about authors! Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal explained a lot about what had irritated me about Jeanette Winterson, and why she suddenly seemed to be a changed person – you’re right, Jackie Kay’s experience was infinitely better. And I would wrest that copy of How to Live out of your friend’s hands!

      I like your comment about the Dalai Lama. Not taking yourself seriously is so important even while wrestling with the world’s intellectual and philosophical problems. He’s a man whose twinkle in the eye never seems to leave him.

      1. Without having read Jeanette Winterson’s book, I think it interesting that she has allowed sufficient time to elapse before writing about her relationship, in the same way that some people misunderstand the reason why Maya Angelou in her eighties now, can have written so lovingly in her most recent memoir about the mother who abandoned her and her brother and failed to protect her in other ways that had tragic consequences. Some have criticised her and even accuse her of lying. However, it is the result of time passing, of genuine forgiveness and practicing compassion, that allow this to happen, presenting a transformation in their way of thinking, which may quite well be at opposites to how the person represented that same story 20 or 30 years earlier in print.

        The toughest tests in life often make the most compelling reading and have the potential to create the best role models. And humour certainly helps!

  3. When I’m feeling a bit glum I need humour or sheer escapism to perk me up, laughter and/or thrills getting the positive brain chemistry going again. I wouldn’t think of reading a non-fiction book like those in the Vintage list, that requires more concentration than I’d probably be capable of, but once my mood was boosted …

      1. Yes, I thought it was a brave book. She was very honest about what had obviously been a nasty breakdown – hardly surprising given what she had been through as a child and a young adult.

        I do take your point about non-fiction. I tend towards a bit of escapism when feeling down too.

  4. The Winterson was one of my favourite reads last year and I enjoyed what I heard of the Jackie Kay when it was serialised on Radio 4. You’ve reminded me that I have a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s book sitting on my shelves and I must really try and make time to take it down (and read it, of course 🙂 )

  5. Some great books here, Susan! Will add the rest to my wish-list…I loved Oliver Burkeman’s books – I guess they fall into the category of self-help but they’re also as cynical as I am about it 😉

    1. I’m with you on the trad. self-help, Jess – brings me out in a rash – but this is a great list. Well done Vintage! Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live is particularly good

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