Feeling a little down this election season? There's a story for that...
I had a shaky feeling in my stomach the night before my first day of high school. I was a shy kid and had only been in Arizona for a year. I didn't have siblings and really didn’t have any friends. I was lonely, and high school seemed dangerous.
I went to bed that night, my anxiety growing every minute. Eventually, I called out to my parents, and they sat up with me. They made me laugh, hugged me, and let me talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. But when they left, my nervousness kicked back up.
I grabbed my dad's Army flashlight, buried myself under the covers, and pulled out a book from under my pillow (I always kept books under my pillow). It was a thick collection of “Peanuts” cartoons.
I read the entire collection that night, finding peace in the safety of the neighborhoods and the predictability of the characters. Other books have helped over the years, but I’ll always have an unshakeable love for Charlie Brown and his friends. In that spirit, I asked some local writers to name and explain what books comfort them:
- Amber Sparks: LeoTolstoy's War and Peace. That probably sounds ridiculous but I've read it several times and I've never loved or rooted for or identified with any fictional characters like I have Pierre. When I was at a dark point a few years ago, when both cats died and we also thought we couldn't have children, I was doing lots of comfort reading, and this book was the best prescription. It's such a humbling play of the human condition and human frailty and pride and dignity and plain old fumbling, it was immensely comforting. My troubles felt small and mild and yet also weirdly on par with the all-too-human struggles of history's great men and women, too - and especially the ones searching for their place in a turbulent world, like Pierre.
- Dana King: A Widow for One Year by John Irving. Twice divorced, and the woman I thought might be just who I had been looking for was about to move cross country. Irving’s book showed that things may take circuitous routes and may not always work out, but no situation is necessarily permanent. People come to their own choices by their own methods, fit to their own timetables. Be patient.
- Louis Bayard: One of the roughest times in my life would have to be the recent election. I found that the usual escapism wasn’t working, so I turned to a surprising source: Henry James’ Washington Square. It was a world so far removed from our current sphere — yet every bit as real and human — that the hours sprinted past. And may I say that not a single character in that book fretted over who was president?
- Kim Alexander: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I was a stereotypically nerdy outcast as a kid, and the story of the unicorn who turns into a beautiful, perfect woman and then rejects it for her own true identity instead planted some deep seeds about the power of personal authenticity. Also it's just a gorgeous book.
- Jenny Drummey: Being a Beast. Charles Foster attempts to cross the species divide by living as a badger, a swift, and other creatures. As he assumes their diet and lifestyle, we are immersed in the other. An experiment in consciousness and an argument for a full experience of the senses, this book offers an antidote when I feel overwhelmed in a life mediated by screens.
- Holly Karapetkova: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. This might not seem an obvious choice, but as a young adult raised in the South and grappling against racism and sexism, this book freed and comforted me in ways I will be forever grateful for. These poems let me know I was not alone, that real change was possible, and that language and poetry could be a source of empowerment.
- Josh Pachter: In 1973, a friend gave me a boxed set of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia for Christmas. I read the first six volumes in six days and have reread them a dozen times since, but I've never read #7, The Last Battle. I figure, no matter how tough things get, there's no way God will let me die not knowing how the story ends — so as long as I don't read that book, I'm safe.
- Barb Goffman: In high school, I read Illusions by Richard Bach over and over. It included life lessons that spoke to me then and now, including about the importance of being brave. To achieve great things, Bach said, you must be willing to take big risks, work hard, and believe in yourself. And don’t forget that your true family is made of those people who respect you and share in your joy. You may not be related to them.
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to write something for this column. If you have a book that helped you through a tough time, leave a note in the comments below.
Next Wednesday, me and my collaborator, DJ Alkimist, are going to debut our new “short stories + music” track, "Requiem," at 9 p.m. EST on Authors on the Air. We’ll also chat with the host (the terrific Pam Stack) and take calls and questions. More information here.