Around this time last year I mentioned the Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative in a post on Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion. They’d just launched their second list of books aimed at people suffering from depression. Since then I’ve been keeping an eye open hoping for the chance to vote for titles on a third list, eager to get my old favourite The President’s Hat in with a chance. Instead I spotted a new scheme: Books on Prescription for Dementia, launched a week or so ago. The list associated with this particular initiative includes twenty-five titles ranging from books offering information and advice on living with dementia, support for carers and personal stories about the disease. All are endorsed by health professionals and all should be available from your local library if you live in England. A quick trip to the Reading Well website will explain the way the scheme works better than I can.
Today is Blue Monday, the day when we’re all at our lowest here in the UK, apparently: the 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 Reading 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?
I have to admit I was a little sceptical about The President’s Hat. I thought it might be a tad whimsical for me but it turns out to be an absolute delight from start to finish. It begins with an accountant, a little out of sorts with his job, treating himself to a solitary meal in a brasserie. Just as he is tucking into his plateau royal de fruits de mer, François Mitterrand takes the seat alongside him and begins a conversation with his ex-Foreign Minister sitting opposite. Daniel is thrilled. After Mitterrand has left he collects himself and his belongings only to find that the President has left his hat behind. Rather taken with it, Daniel decides to wear the hat and next day he finds the courage to stand up to his irritating boss. When he forgets to pick it up on a train a young woman on her way to an assignation finds the hat and with it the courage to break off her dead-end affair. Recognising its power, she leaves the hat on a park bench and watches as an elderly man picks it up, sniffs it and puts it on his head. Pierre Aslan, a perfumier, recovers his celebrated nose but loses the hat in a restaurant where Bernard Lavallière, a disenchanted member of the French upper classes, picks it up thinking it to be his own and suddenly finds his inner socialist. Eventually, and satisfyingly, the hat comes full circle. There’s a nice little moral, as there is in all fables, which becomes clear at the end of the hat’s journey.
Gallic Press have done a superb job in the production of The President’s Hat – there’s even an integral bookmark in its jacket. Unusually, the translation is attributed to them and each of the team gets a credit at the end of the book. It’s a technique which works extraordinarily well, giving each individual character and their story a distinct voice. This is a book for summer reading lists, that’s for sure, but the best time to read it would be a wet British weekend when you’re badly in need of cheering up. The Reading Agency has come up with a two brilliant lists of mood-boosting books as an aid to treating depression – I hope they’ll include this joyful, optimistic often very funny book on their next list.