Literary therapy to power through anxiety
March 3, 2020 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I have generalised anxiety on occasion and tend to have phases where I get mild panic attacks multiple times a day. I was on medication a couple of years ago and started exercising a lot - things got much better but the coronavirus panic has really affected me. I’d like recommendations for engrossing reads, preferably long novels, that will help me center myself.

I’m especially interested in novels you may have used to get through difficult periods. I have a thing for 19th century novels but really anything so long as it’s not speculative fiction. Not now.
posted by bigyellowtaxi to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
It's not long but it is certainly engrossing: The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (who is in the news, having just died). I used to read this on airplane trips, over and over; I find it very calming.

(there was a side effect: I could hardly ever remember the details of the story and each time I read it was like the first time.)
posted by chavenet at 2:39 AM on March 3, 2020

Also not long, but absolutely delightful: Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Van Arnim. It is funny and charming and feels like taking a vacation with a group of lovely people.
posted by yankeefog at 2:55 AM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are long, and made all the longer by the density of the prose. The world they draw the reader into is compelling, and the writing is beautifully constructed and demands to be read slowly and savoured. If Stephen King is Coca-Cola, Peake is a perfectly matured shiraz.

I usually rip through novels at a fair old pace, but I got to about page 14 of Titus Groan and realized that I had no fucking clue what was going on. Went back to the start and tried again at about half the usual speed, forcing myself to pause at the end of every sentence to give it time to develop on the palate, and omg so good. This is the correct and only way to approach these books. Thoroughly recommended.
posted by flabdablet at 3:59 AM on March 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

I just finished reading Dickens’ David Copperfield which I enjoyed immensely and found absorbing. It’s also almost 900 pages. I didn’t read it with Coronavirus anxiety in mind but I noticed that my interest in the book kept me off news sites and social media which is a good thing.
posted by shibori at 4:20 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin novels - none is particularly long individually, but there are twenty and a half books that are in effect one very long novel, so more than enough to keep you occupied for some time if you so choose.

There is much, much more to the books than the description of 'nautical historical novels' might suggest, and they're far beyond Hornblower and the like. Absolutely no need for any pre-existing interest in or knowledge of ships, sailing, or the Napoleonic wars. The characters and relationships are the primary focus and are magnificently drawn - the books have been described as 'Austen at sea', and can stand the comparison. On a sentence level, the writing is unobtrusively excellent and often very funny. The plot is extensive, sometimes meandering, always engrossing. The world is wonderfully realised and immersively detailed without being infodumpy - there's liberal use of nautical terminology, but you don't need to understand it (although you can delve into the details if you really want to).

I read the entire series during a very difficult year, and it was the only thing that reliably let me escape from everything else, while having enough substance that the calming and centering effects lingered long after I closed the book each day (in a way that e.g. Wodehouse didn't - perfectly distracting while reading, but wore off quickly). Very highly recommended.
posted by inire at 4:21 AM on March 3, 2020 [11 favorites]

I am soothed by mysteries and procedurals — always have been. I find them comforting because I know that things will turn out in the end — the detective will solve the mystery and justice will be served. Golden Age mysteries are my current thing. The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers is a particular favorite — vibrant characters, masterful writing, and lots of fun literary allusions sprinkled into dialogue.

To switch genres, Terry Prachett’s Discworld books are highly engrossing and comforting fantasy/comedy. While very funny, they are also very thoughtful books with characters you actually care about. A bit like Douglas Adams, but less manic. Start anywhere except the first two published (The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic) — he hadn’t quite found the right voice yet in those two. Other than that, it hardly matters where you start; there are ongoing plot arcs, but the books are still very episodic and don’t suffer for being read out of order. (I know, because I did read them all out of order, based on what was at the used book store at any given time.) The world is more medieval sword & sorcery-ish in early books, but shifts towards Victorian industrial revolution-ish by the mid-to-late books.
posted by snowmentality at 5:06 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's not SUPER long but I used The Grapes of Wrath for this last year. I don't like escaping into fantasy/sci-fi and this was real and meaningful but different enough from my own life that it wasn't stressful.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:10 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hilary Mantel's historical novels are great. Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the new one are all about England and Thomas Cromwell. A Place of Greater Safety is about the French revolution and it's amazing. I find her writing to be dense enough that I have to take it in small doses, like a very good dark chocolate.

If you are looking more for escape, and like sci-fi, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels (there are so many of them!) are plotty, fun, and satisfyingly free of ick (I don't like war for its own sake, stodgy gender dynamics, or cardboard female characters, and Bujold gleefully stomps on all those things.)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:35 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Gilbert's novels City of Girls and The Signature of All Things were very centering for me.

And Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been a long-time engrossing comfort read for me.
posted by mskyle at 8:24 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

For some reason, Penelope Lively's novel Consequences absolutely hits this spot for me. (Excuse the cheesy cover; it is absolutely a serious novel -- Lively has won the Booker Prize.)
posted by caoimhe at 8:30 AM on March 3, 2020

I used The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt for this purpose when I was going through an awful time. Sorry, on phone and can’t link.
posted by holborne at 8:30 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not super long, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle kept me from noticing an entire plane trip yesterday.
posted by korej at 8:35 AM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I happened to be reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee, when the news of Covid19 started. It's not exactly cheery, but is engrossing, quite well-written, and more optimistic than you'd think. It puts the mild risk of getting coronavirus, and miniscule risk of actual harm from it, right in perspective.

Before that I read Octavia Butler's Lilith Trilogy, which was engrossing, and free to read with Amazon Prime.
posted by theora55 at 8:43 AM on March 3, 2020

I'm gonna recommend Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels: either the 15th-Century-set Niccolo novels (starting with Niccolo Rising) or the 16th-Century-set Lymond Chronicles (starting with The Game of Kings). They intersect, but not in a way that would determine which order you read them in.

I recommend them for people who like history, swordplay, political intrigue, espionage, the Valois Court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, complicated characters, sneaky bastards, polyglots, tons of literary and historical allusions, battles, travel, and messy family drama. The Lymond Chronicles are more old-fashioned "romance" novels of adventure & politics; the Niccolo novels are more about trade and intrigue. They both involve travel all over Europe, the Mediterranean, and even further afield.

The prose in the Lymond books takes a long time to get used to: it's complicated, dense, full of description and allusions. The prose in Niccolo is easier to read but the story is no less complex, the characters no less challenging.

If you like Hilary Mantel, she thinks Dunnett is wonderful, if you need a plug.

Me, I love these books like burning (despite their flaws, and they do have them), and it's always wonderful to find someone else who has read them. I believe they are all in print right now, and if you post on social media that you are reading them, you are likely to be inundated with enthusiasm from strangers for joining the club. (You may want to avoid this; it can be a bit overwhelming.)
posted by suelac at 11:26 AM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you like 19th century novels, it's pretty likely that you've already read Middlemarch, but if you haven't, you definitely should.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:01 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I like Helen Hooven Santmyer's "...And Ladies of the Club" for this sort of reading. It's enormous, engrossing, stately and comforting.
posted by Corvid at 1:09 PM on March 3, 2020

I got insanely engrossed in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, which add up to like 1500 pages or something total. I'd also +1 recommend Donna Tartt's novels.
posted by thebots at 1:29 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I read through Tamora Pierce's entire Tortall series the last time I was feeling particularly awful (almost suicidal) and without access to mental health care, and her stories and characters really helped, despite - or maybe due to? - being YA.
The first few books (Alanna: The First Adventure is the beginning of the series) feel a bit clumsy, but I found that actually helped as the writing got better together with my ability to focus on reading more. The fourth book in Alanna's series, Lioness Rampant, is one of my favorite books ever, and you'll have several more series in the same universe with old character reappearing, so it's really comforting.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 4:02 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you might like some light, clever social satire with topics relevant to various intersectional identities, try "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith. I found it absolutely captivating and attention-commanding when I should have been busy with grad school stuff.
posted by zeusianfog at 4:24 PM on March 3, 2020

Seconding Middlemarch, it’s truly wonderful. It didn’t grab me, when I first read it, but I gave it fifty pages and long before that was completely sucked in. I’m not sure from your question if sad but wise and beautiful novels are ok. If so, and if you haven’t read it, the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina is amazing. There are fortunately two main story lines, so it’s not 100% tragic.

I also love Patrick O’Brian, suggested earlier, and reread it with regularity, especially when stressed. Another favorite is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s a literary mystery/love story, part historical and part modern. Delightful.

In a totally different tone, The Master and Margarita is a surrealist romp through early communist Russia. Very fun. Pevear and Volokhonsky translated it too, haven’t read theirs but I’m sure it’s the one you’ll want.
posted by sumiami at 8:35 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I went through a very traumatic year last year, and found a lot of solace in the fantasy Liveship trilogy by Robin Hobb. Turns out escapism is really, really helpful

Prior to this extended period of high anxiety, I'd never been drawn to the fantasy genre - in fact, I was snobby and judgemental about it, which I regret now - but actually, reading about a world and culture that doesn't actually exist and was completely removed from people and the "real world" was exactly what I needed. The troubles and challenges of people dealing with sentient wood and other mythical creatures was manageable for me, whereas I really didn't want to read about more relatable characters set in the real world while I was trying to cope with enough of my own anxieties.

The reason I devoured the whole Liveship trilogy though, wasn't just for the escapism but because her characters and their relationships with each other are actually so true-to-life that they were very relatable. They just didn't have my type of problems.
posted by Zaire at 1:54 AM on March 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another thought: A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. It's one of the longest novels ever written in English, but Seth's style is elegantly simple, so reading it never feels like work. Also, he's a tremendously empathetic writer, so while his characters are complex, flawed humans, he never makes you feel pessimistic about humanity.
posted by yankeefog at 2:16 AM on March 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you can handle some explicit sex scenes, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is incredibly engrossing. There are currently eight books in the series, and they are LONG -- usually between 800 and 1100 pages. They are mostly set in the 18th century (there's a time travel element), and though written between 1991 and the present, there's something very dense and old-fashioned about Gabaldon's writing style. It also features my favorite fictional couple of all time, if that's a thing that draws you in!
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 1:21 PM on March 4, 2020

To add to Zaire's recommendation: there are 16+ books set within the same world, so if you get into it, you can get into it for a looong time.
posted by metasarah at 8:10 AM on March 5, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone for such wonderful suggestions!
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 5:49 AM on April 17, 2020

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