Books have saved my life more times than I can count. Stories of desperation and triumph, petulance and generosity, cowardice and bravery, disappointment, and absconding—from fear, boredom, desire. Nowhere but in the pages of books have I ever found such comfort, validation, commiseration.
After spending the better part of my twenties and early thirties enduring the limited benefits of psychoanalysis, I now—at 45—have a better appreciation for the true value of literature as therapy.
In her 2016 The Guardian newspaper piece Move over Freud: literary fiction is the best therapy, author and former psychoanalyst Salley Vickers wrote, “One of my maxims as a university teacher of literature was: ‘A great novel not only enhances our understanding—more crucially it understands us.’ When I later trained as a psychoanalyst, I annoyed my tutors with my refrain that one could learn more about the subtleties of human psychology from literature than from the works of Freud, Adler or Jung.”
But even before I’d ever heard of analysis or antidepressants, way back when I was the just a “sensitive” child, books were a lot more than mere entertainment.
Gelett Burgess’ The Goops, in their graphic slovenliness, made me feel better about my five-year-old self. After all, who would be so vile as to have a poem written about their bad behavior? Not you. Not me. But, Goops? Oh yes!
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth—
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop—are you?
Mom read The Goops, and many other stories and poems to me nightly pretty much until she and dad split when I was seven-and-a-half. After that, I was on my own—both literarily and otherwise.
Once we were stricken by poverty and its kissing cousins hunger, shame, confusion, I hid in Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, a book about a boy named Sam Gribley who runs away to the forest and lives in a hollowed-out tree.
“I must say this now about that first fire. It was magic,” Craighead George wrote. “Out of dead tinder and grass and sticks came a live warm light. It cracked and snapped and smoked and filled the woods with brightness. It lighted the trees and made them warm and friendly. It stood tall and bright and held back the night.”
How desperately I wished to make a new life for myself far-far from home. Hiding from the chaos, I sat in closet with flashlight, or in bare-bulbed basement, among my mildew and silverfish milieu and delighted in every detail of Sam’s survivalist lifestyle. Oh, how I wished to crush acorns into pancake flour, fashion fishhooks for pond and stream, and build my fortress in the belly of a magnificent oak.
Spent a lot of hours daydreaming about where I would go and how I would live when I eventually ran away. Sadly, I didn’t have the courage to escape until I was nineteen. But I never forgot Sam. And, sometimes, I still think about abandoning my life—with its deadlines and disappointments—finding that special spot in the Catskill Mountains, and making a new place for myself.
As George put it, “Be you writer or reader, it is very pleasant to run away in a book.”
In 1987, when I was 12, I first read Stephen King’s The Body, the story of a group of boys who take a summer journey to look at the corpse of a kid their age—and to escape the difficulties of their own homes.
I was turned on to the book, one of four novellas in the collection Different Seasons, by my mother, who read an excerpt to little brother and me through the bathroom door while she was on the pot one morning.
This was a fairly normal occurrence around our house. Many a philosophical or personal conversation was had between mom and me in this manner; her sitting on the toilet, me on the other side of the door in the darkened hall between the master bedroom and second-floor staircase.
Our talks usually consisted of her lamenting sundry woes, and me crying over my smorgasbord of preteen sorrows. Our white trash confessionals also included readings of scary, bizarre, and funny stories.
What initially interested me in The Body wasn’t the camaraderie or adventure that would come later when I read the full story. What drew me was the hilarious and nauseating pie-eating and subsequent mass vomiting scene, underwritten by the poor protagonist’s revenge, which reduced us one and all to hysterical blubbering convulsions.
The story concerns an obese and ostracized young man named David Hogan—who people refer to as “Lard ass”—who repays the townsfolk’s cruelty by initiating a pastry-fueled puke-fest of Old Roman proportions.
Mom kept herself together up until Davie, with queasy gullet, opened his mouth with a great blue smile before belching an inhuman amount of castor oil and a blueberry pie whale spray onto the previous year’s champion, hence setting off an upchuck chain reaction.
Mom kept having to stop to catch her breath and reread sentences which her guffaws rendered gibberish.
Some of my best memories of mom involve books.
If you haven’t read The Body, do yourself a favor. The movie Stand By Me, while a gem, doesn’t do the pie-eating contest justice.
As I grew older, I continued to read though I focused pretty steadily on superhero comics, supernatural horror novels, true crime, and scary short story collections. Sure, I read the classical literature required for school but that was about it.
One book I missed in my youth, though I think now I’m glad I didn’t read until later, was The Catcher in the Rye. For some reason, which I still don’t understand, my mother long urged me to read the Salinger hit. Being, by then, a teenager preoccupied with cheap vodka, girls, and heavy metal, I thought I had better things to do.
Wasn’t until maybe twenty years later I finally bought a copy and read it over four intense nights; me staring indignantly at the mass-market orange paper and cheaply printed text, looking for the secret joke or insult which would reveal itself.
I’d long heard what people said about the book. How Holden was just another delusional asshole genius type. Is that what my mother was trying to say? Well, fuck me. Was I Holden Caulfield?
I mean, I knew I wasn’t … but was I? We all think we’re a lot of things that we’re not. Maybe I was and didn’t know it. I wasn’t rich or spoiled, and I didn’t—as a child at least—have anywhere near a similar temperament. So, why had she kept urging me to read it?
In the 25 years or so that I’d known the book existed, I’d only ever heard one recurring theme from those who claimed to have read it: that Holden Caulfield was just a spoiled brat.
I felt the same way from the beginning of the book. That feeling only strengthened as the story progressed.
What did I possibly have in common with a wealthy prep-school dropout who had a dead brother and a superiority delusion? The further I read and thought, the more I realized a strange dichotomy existed within Holden. In one way, he seemed deluded about his own motivations and intelligence because most people he met were, in his estimation, either phony or moronic. By constantly labeling folks as either, he seemed to be thinking that he was one of the few intelligent and genuine souls.
I was a sensitive and terrified child, so I couldn’t see any similarity there. Wasn’t until I reached the end of the book, when the reader discovers Holden is in a mental health facility receiving treatment for his neuroses, that I realized I had recognized many of his behaviors from the previous pages.
What appeared to so many readers and critics through the decades as puerility and overindulgence were actually more serious, and more deeply rooted than a simple tantrum or laziness would suggest.
The clue that tipped me off to the rest was in the last few lines of the book. Holden Recounts a discussion with a psychoanalyst, recalling how he had told the doctor he had no way of knowing whether he would do what he was supposed to do until it came time to do it. Holden gave that answer in response to the doctor asking whether Holden planned to apply himself when he went back to school in the fall.
I’ve long shared that same bad habit. Growing up in constant chaos, you learn never to make plans … for they inevitably turn to shit. Ironically, by never planning for tomorrow, you guarantee for yourself failure.
True, Holden’s annoying, immature behaviors are absolutely trademarks of a spoiled brat. However, there were a great many signs that Holden Caulfield was suffering from depression and anxiety, and possibly other mental disturbances. Not to mention he seemed to be in the process of being groomed by at least one sexual predator.
Considering how often modern doctors still fail to recognize or properly diagnose the panic disorder family of conditions, it is certain that many readers and critics had no clue what truly motivated Holden.
Consider the paralyzing ennui and pathological disillusionment. These behaviors and thoughts were more than mere dissatisfaction stemming from boredom.
Holden’s malaise concerned the very essence of existence, and it generated a futile worldview where prospects of the slightest effort or even the most exciting activity were rendered exhausting, unfulfilling, and pointless.
I don’t know what it’s like to be Holden Caufield but I do know what it’s like to always feel alien, alone, afraid and to lash out in anger because of it.
I also have no interest in hanging out with a Holden Caulfield type but I think I would have gotten along with Salinger, who wrote, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
That’s really what a good book is—an old friend.
Much like The Bell Jar is now thought by some to be detailing Sylvia Plath’s undiagnosed schizophrenia, I believe Salinger’s work was—consciously or not—delving into unresolved Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And few things feel as good as being around people or books or music or movies which remind you you’re not the only one who’s hurting.
In his foreword to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “But remember also, young man, you’re not the first person who’s ever been alone and alone.”
God, I love that quote.
What I really wish is that someone would have forced me to read Sylvia Plath when I was thirteen … and maybe told me to lay off the diet pills. Would have saved me a lot of time worrying that I was the only one who felt isolated and alien. And a lot fewer sleepless nights in cold sweats.
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia wrote, “If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed.” That, and the feeling that I’d always been “extra” … back before “extra” meant what it means today … could have been calligraphed in gold leaf on my eternal escutcheon.
“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room,” Plath wrote. “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction—every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.”
Other books I later found but that would have been good medicine for my teenaged self include Elie Wiesel’s Night, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (though I don’t remember any boy ever worrying about his hair the way Ponyboy Curtis did), John Waters’ Shock Value, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (by far my favorite book of all time), Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and the collected short stories of Flannery O’Connor.
How good of medicine? In her July 2018 PsychCentral.com piece Why Novel Reading Reduces Anxiety, Tracy Shawn, MA, cited an Emory University study published in 2013 regarding reading’s curative effects on brain function.
“The simple act of reading a novel … can give us a psychological shot of courage, encouraging personal growth while reducing anxiety,” Shawn wrote. “In fact, there’s even a term for this phenomenon: bibliotherapy.”
In the early 2000s, when I tried for the umpteenth time to again get my shit together, a learned friend gave me his personal copy of Lord Jim and urged me to read.
Once more, I put the book on top of the entertainment center and focused on more important things … like binging Sopranos episodes and writing bad poetry.
Returned the book months later, unread and vandalized by my crayon-wielding children. Friend never told me why he wanted me to read it. But, a few years ago, I finally ordered a copy of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece and read it—twice.
Come to think of it, I might just have some unmistakable worst streaks of Jim and Holden in me.
The narrator wonders of Jim—who stands in a lifeboat at the ready all night with a board to fend off attack from his shipmates—if it was, “Firmness of courage or effort of fear?”
I can’t speak for Jim, but my resolve has always been a cardboard box at the mercy of warm summer rain.
There’ll be mush by morning.
Untold times it has been said to me to just stop worrying. And to them I think of Conrad when he wrote, “How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a specter through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?”
When late at night I bedside kneel, all wet-cheeked and palpitation, I think, or hope, he was trying to tell me it’s OK to be afraid, and that what happened wasn’t my fault, and maybe most importantly that I needn’t spend the rest of my life trying to, as Lord Jim did, make amends for a long list of trespasses, or cling to guilt … especially over the mistakes of others.
I think of Jim often, how ashamed he must have felt needlessly jumping overboard, and I try to console my own desertions in their quiet hour of perfect hatred.
Older I get, I’ve found, the more I use reading and especially rereading to cope with life.
In 2013, someone dear to my daughter passed unexpectedly.
Not really knowing why but out of sheer loss for what else to do, I offered her a volume on Buddhism, a tome which had gotten me through or, more accurately, mildly distracted during some tough bouts of my own.
No, the book couldn’t unfray all those seams split in the stretch that comes with the swell of grief. But, it gave father and daughter something positive to talk about amidst what for her must have been a living nightmare.
The most difficult and fulfilling teachings from that book have been to concentrate on the present and to remember that our thoughts shape us. I struggle with this daily as I play “the old tapes” in my head but it’s helped more than any other religious maxim or dose of psychotropic.
Though, I do so wish to sample the LSD!
Years now I’ve made a habit of giving books, strategically, to friends and family who could use some emotional buttressing or literary inspiration. And I’ve been careful not to pry after the fact. Maybe they read them, maybe they didn’t. I learned a long time ago but only recently realized that people can’t be pushed over, around, or through their own path.
When my son called from business school recently to express frustration, I gave him all the pep talk I could muster.
Then, soon as we hung up, I ordered a copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and had it sent to his apartment. That novel, maybe more than any other, is a song of hope in hopelessness, a sort of schlub’s promise that underdogs—and even us real pathetic longshots—can at least screw a coat hook into the wall next to everybody else’s.
Proulx’s The Shipping News lifted me. Pinched between her finger and thumb my heart-fear-hope all at once when she wrote, “We face up to awful things because we can’t go around them or forget them. The sooner you say ‘Yes, it happened, and there’s nothing I can do about it,’ the sooner you can get on with your own life…. What we have to get over, somehow we do. Even the worst things.”
When my son visited for a recent holiday and told me he not only adored The Shipping News but wanted to discuss it and even try fish and chips because of it—a food he’d long avoided—my heart soared. Cliché be damned but by god I felt it soaring.
The joy of connecting with others over beloved literature is good-good therapy.
Ironically, I only read Proulx’s work because of the stupendous job B. R. Myers did in his evisceration A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on The Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. At the time of its writing, in 2002, I both had not read any of the books Myers criticized, and agreed with him wholeheartedly on their alleged pretentiousness.
To my everlasting shame, it wasn’t until a decade later, upon revisiting Myers’ excoriation of authors like DeLillo, Proulx, and McCarthy, that I became curious enough to actually read their works myself.
Immediately I fell in love with Mau II and White Noise, with Blood Meridian and All The Pretty Horses, with The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes. The lesson to my presumptive self—not to judge a book by its critic—has bequeathed me the gift of reading widely.
Strangely, most of the “therapy” books I’ve read are ones found accidentally.
In Joan Didion, I found the soulmate of angst and ennui I didn’t know I’d always been looking for, and Flannery O’Connor seems to have hauled her characters cussing and biting straight from my childhood Thanksgiving dinner table—for the branches of my family tree bow precariously with such grotesque fruit.
And, if nothing else, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has given valuable insight on what to look forward to, now that I’m middle-aged and somewhat middleclass.
Finally, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the story that may not have saved my marriage but reminded us both, the wife and me, what’s really important. She gave me Tolstoy’s novella on the question of “what’s it all for?” at Christmastime a couple years ago.
While it is not my favorite of his shorter works, the conversations it has initiated between us have given fresh perspective on what it means to live, yearn, love, and how to better spend what little time we have on this metaphor of all metaphors.
More importantly, and I think the wife would say more aptly, the story has served as a meditation on the absurdity and pointlessness of fearing death—a lifelong struggle and favorite pastime of mine.
I found in Ivan Ilyich the most kindred of spirits when Tolstoy wrote, “It can’t be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die and die in agony?”
Having spent many a night on the floor, staring at the ceiling, hyperventilating with cold sweats and certain of life’s meaninglessness, I know all too well Ivan Ilyich’s lament that, “It is impossible that all men have been doomed to suffer this awful horror!”
Finally, I’ve come to a place in life where I think I know how to spot the majority of my foibles … and whose pages to seek when I need to be cheered. Of course, never truly finally because there will certainly be another crisis and there will always be another book.
Literature isn’t a cure-all. But, more and more, it’s shown to help center and soothe the anxious.
In Sandy Smith’s February 2013 piece Don’t pop a pill, read a book, she wrote, “UK research has found that reading is more relaxing than listening to music, going for a walk, or having a cup of tea—reducing stress levels by 68 percent.”
And, further, “Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis from the consultancy Mindlab International found that reading silently for just six minutes slowed the heart rate and eased muscle tension in research volunteers.”
Oh, sure, there’ve been times when I sought solace from flesh-and-bone people, but they rarely had the medicine I truly needed. Besides, with books, I never once had to worry about what awful things the stories might be thinking or saying behind my back after I’d performed emotional hara-kiri in their presence.
Bookshelves are sanctuary.
And to the library I shall return.
Because, in the end, I am Sam Gribley and Esther Greenwood, Holden Caulfield and Lord Jim, certainly Lard-ass Hogan, and—as much as I wish I was the strong and confident Agnis Hamm, I am more of a Quoyle, most definitely an Ivan Ilyich, and, sometimes even now as much as when I was five years old, I am a Goop.