For When You're Down in the Dumps and Life Has No Meaning

I asked three people -- a distinguished psychiatrist, a veteran English professor and a very young mother of two -- what book or books they would give a friend who was down and out and needed to be distracted. Or uplifted. Here's what they had to say. It's a marvelously diverse little list. See if you can figure out who suggested what.

1. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Miguel Ruiz.
The author is a nagual, or shaman, of the Toltec tradition, and he brings the wisdom of his ancestors to this slender manual about personal conduct and life. There are only four rules to live by, but Ruiz's lyrical prose and the crystalline truths in his lessons offer a great deal to ponder. A veritable tonic.

2. Straight Man, by Richard Russo.
"This book made me laugh out loud!" my informant told me. "On every page!" But it also turned out to be deeply affecting. Which makes sense: It's a comic novel by a serious writer. In it, an anarchist professor at a third-rate college is made the interim head of a very troubled department on the assumption that he'll leave well enough alone. But eventually he surprises everyone, even himself. It's a hilarious and heartbreaking drama about human foibles -- and strengths. They don't give Pulitzer Prizes for nothing.

3. Buddha, a biography by Karen Armstrong.
He was 29 when he decided to leave his pleasure dome for a more difficult life on the road, but in the course of his travels he achieved more than the routine tourist: He understood the world, encountered the divine and eventually even touched immortality. Armstrong tells the story in a clean narrative arc, explaining that Buddha was nothing if not wholly human and Buddhism is an "essentially psychological religion." The result, one might say, is a nice little roadmap to redemption.

4. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
It's a mere 90 pages long, but here, one of the 20th century's great philosophers weighs the meaning of objective reality. Every sentence is a brilliant gem, meant to be savored -- each thought deserving of deep contemplation. Believe me, you won't be turning these pages very quickly. And yet, Wittgenstein was essentially a mystical soul, so there's much to inspire here. As the playwright Michael Frayn said, it's "short, bold, cryptic, and remarkable in its power to stir the imagination."

5. Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
In this memoir, Gilbert tells of her year-long attempt to put her life together after a bitter divorce. Thin and spent, she goes to Italy on an eating spree, where she gives herself a large dose of gustatory therapy. Then she visits an ashram outside Mumbai, where she applies some much needed spiritual balm. Lastly, she finds love with an older man and learns balance from a healer in Bali. All this is told in tiny scenes, strung like shiny beads, with a great deal of self-deprecating humor. Perhaps it's the travelogue aspect, or the light-hearted banter, but the book must be easy to swallow: In one year, it's sold well over 2 million copies.

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  November 8, 2007; 6:44 AM ET Marie Arana
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I find it touching and pathetic that the list seems to totally avoid the topic of rational problem-solving, and in fact seems to consistently veer off into the irrational and the emotional, even the mystical, as a substitute for clear and practical thinking in the area of self-mastery.

Blech! If I may say that here without giving undue personal offense.

Posted by: A minor poet, coughing. | November 8, 2007 11:05 AM

Three out of the five books seem to focus on some form of Eastern religion/mysticism. How is this "marvelously diverse"? It seems more like propaganda.

Posted by: just wondering | November 8, 2007 1:01 PM

I'm glad I didn't buy "Eat, Pray, Love" because if she had enough money to tour Italy for a year, then she clearly has an advantage over people who are poor. She must stuck her ex-husband for every dime he was worth.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | November 8, 2007 3:29 PM

When I'm down in the dumps I want to be distracted and entertained. So, I would just recommend 2 of my favorite books: 'The Life of Pi' and 'The Dogs of Babel'. Pi was so glorious and magical that I'm afraid to read it again.

Posted by: atb2 | November 8, 2007 4:17 PM

I have to agree--the last thing I want when I'm feeling down is a book about how to make my life all better. (After all, I usually have some idea myself. That's the problem.)

For my friends and family, I recommend cheerful memoir. Most of Anne Lamott's non-fiction cheers me up immensely, as does Jean Marie Laskas's Fifty Acres and a Poodle, and Julie Powell's Julie and Julia. All are funny, well-written accounts of changing one's life. THAT'S what I want when I'm depressed: not instruction, but confirmation that normal, messed-up people can make that journey.

For the poster annoyed at Elizabeth Gilbert, read Julie Powell. She spends most of the book trying to cook in a Brooklyn walk-up with a Gothic bathtub. No fantasy travel, just fantasy food.

Posted by: krasni | November 9, 2007 10:59 AM

Oh, and my #1 moodlifting book is a chick-lit novel called The Little Lady Agency by Hester Brown. Warming, entertaining, rereadable. Excellent escape fiction.

All the guys who just read this and rolled their eyes, be aware that both my brother and my brother-in-law (formerly West Point cadets) stole the book from me and loved it, and my father was so taken with it that he read it on an airplane, despite the pink cover. So don't be embarrassed.

Posted by: krasni | November 9, 2007 11:07 AM

Good comments all! And thank you!
Now I can divulge the other recommendations from these same three informants (psychiatrist, professor and young mother), since it took some pruning to get it to five books:
In answer to the coughing poet who wants more rational problem-solving(interesting in itself, no? that he/she would want that?), I'm afraid my informants suggested no self-help books. But one of them strongly put forward any collection of Cavalier poets of the 17th century ("They're so carpe diem!"), which made me remember that poetry in general always manages to raise my spirits. No matter how sad.
And, in answer to Just Wondering, I, too, was struck by these mystical suggestions from (believe me) three very hard-nose people.
To atb2, who says he/she looks for distraction, one of my informants enthusiastically recommended Stephen Pettitt's, "Opera: A Crash Course," which sounds like a lot of fun.
Lastly, in response to krasni, who looks for stories in which other perfectly normal people mess up: The only other novel, apart from Richard Russo's "Straight Man" these three people listed was Zadie Smith's "White Teeth," for precisely its "all too human mess."
Since I haven't really given a suggestion of my own, let me just say that David Lodge's "Trading Places" had me laughing in nervous times. And I'd recommend anything by P.G. Wodehouse.
Come those next blues, though, I'm going to try out that Tractatus Philosophicus . . . I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by: Marie Arana | November 11, 2007 1:16 PM

For the poster who made the comment about the author of Eat, Pray, Love, actually she was the one with the money and the ex husband made out in the divorce. She actually had no money to take a year off but pitched her book to her publisher and they paid her in advance which funded her trip. Also, small point, but she was in Italy for 4 months, India 4 months and Bali for 4 months. I too initially thought "well, how nice for her!" however, scrubbing floors on her knees for hours in India as part of her chores at the Ashram don't color me green with envy.

Posted by: inthedark | November 11, 2007 10:14 PM

Can't understand the praise heaped on Eat, Pray, Love ever since its publication. I found the author to be immensely self-centered, for example, wondering why her spouse gave her a hard time about the divorce when she left him and moved in with another man!! She does seem to mature a bit through her experiences but basically, she's just Me Me Me at the end, too.

Posted by: claire | November 12, 2007 8:23 AM

For Krasni, who would prefer confirmation that normal, messed-up people can make that journey, I'd recommend A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. Four people head to the top of a tall building (separately) on New Year's Eve with the intentions of jumping, but they end up forming a gang, intended to keep each other from making a second attempt. They help each other make small changes in their lives to make their lives less miserable.

Also, two great books about people at the end of their rope -- the play Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, which is a quick read, and will get your adrenaline going. The movie is great too (Richard Burton and Ava Gardner). And of course Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 12, 2007 11:12 AM

Speaking of getting your adrenaline going (I wonder if clinically that's a good way to fight depression--I'll have to ask the psychiatrist of the trio . . . ), I was talking to a wise old engineer yesterday, and he claimed that a rip-roaring adventure was his tried-and-true tonic for depression. A good swashbuckling ride by by Arturo Perez-Reverte, for instance.
But I quite admire books that transform personal tragedies into prose that stirs us: Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" (about the death of her husband); or William Styron's "Darkness Visible" (about battling depression); or Isabel Allende's "Paula" (about the death of her daughter).
Oh, and I also like the Hornby suggestion. It was well reviewed on our pages, and I've always meant to read it.

Posted by: Marie Arana | November 12, 2007 2:20 PM

Ms. Arana -- Regarding the Hornby book, I suggest listening to the story on audio, so you can hear the British accent, which enriches the experience. Thank you for the new suggestions as well as the original ones! I've been meaning to read Paula, and I've added the others to my list.

Regarding a more practical guide, I suggest The Artist's Way. Julia Cameron recommends a daily exercise of writing 3 pages every morning as a way to discover your creativity. The discoveries you uncover about yourself add meaning to your life.

Posted by: Sharon | November 12, 2007 3:56 PM

My no-fail recipe for getting over whatever I am hung up on (excuse the grammar) is the Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love. This is the first of a series, but you don't really need to read the others. The author is Jill Connor Brown, and I have been reading it for years. It has never failed me.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 13, 2007 9:48 PM

Thank you for those comments. I've just stumbled on a book - recommended to us by a reader. It's called "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" and it's by the Dalai Lama (warning bells for the reader who objected to too much Asian mystical influence) and an Arizona psychiatrist called Howard Cutler. The book was published almost 10 years ago, but it's enjoying a very vibrant life among readers. I haven't read it, so I'm offering it up here only as a title you MAY want to contemplate.
How is it--I suppose we should ask--that the Dalai Lama is so often smiling?

Posted by: Marie Arana | November 13, 2007 10:29 PM

Do not leave out any book by Fay Weldon - the outrageous scheming and plotting that goes on in her books is enlightening and entertaining and instructive. The She-Devil book sustained me during my divorce!

Posted by: Margaret | November 14, 2007 1:06 PM

I second the recommendation of "The Life of Pi" and "The Dogs of Babel." Both are brilliant and magical.

And I agree with the comment "I quite admire books that transform personal tragedies into prose that stirs us." On that note, I heartily recommend Annie G. Johnson's classic "A Shining Affliction." It's one of the most moving and lyrical memoirs I've ever read.

Posted by: Michael T. | November 14, 2007 3:58 PM

Thanks for that suggestion of "A Shining Affliction," but isn't the author Annie Rogers? Not Johnson. She wrote another book, as I recall, about sexual abuse called "The Unsayable."
A few readers have asked me to mention "A Glass Castle," by Jeanette Walls, and "Driving With Dead People," by Monica Holloway. These are hard stories about tough lives, but they do feature redemptive endings.
My own inclination is to seek relief, not commiseration.
Mario Vargas Llosa has a new book out called "The Bad Girl," (Travesuras de la ni~na mala), which is pure fluff, but will have you believing that your troubles are minimal compared to the protagonist at hand. (And the protagonist, by the way, is the boy.)
In the end, little will teach you more about life than stories: period. Amen.

Posted by: Marie Arana | November 14, 2007 11:51 PM

Yes, Annie Rogers. Thanks for the correction. "The Unsayable," which was recently published in paperback, is also a powerful book, although the second half delves a little too deeply into theory.

I'll have to check out "The Bad Girl"--it sounds like escapist fun!

Posted by: Michael T. | November 15, 2007 10:34 AM

Has anyone stopped to think that--as balm--books are hard poultices? You don't just pick them up and then life is solved. You pick them up and then every miserable problem you ever had got harder.
Every good book I've ever read didn't solve whatever problem I brought to it. It made the problem more acute.
And more relevant.
And therefore more bearable.
Keep up the good work, Book World.
You make it all worthwhile.

Posted by: Blues Alley | November 18, 2007 12:09 AM

Dear Marie Arana,

The following is definitely for someone down in the dumps.

I'm the author of "Storm Over Morocco" which is about a desperate escape from an Islamic sect which accused me of sabotage and imprisoned me. I recently participated in author events in New York City, notably at the Mid-Manhattan Library and other cities.

This is a true story about me, the author; I was wrongly accused of being a Zionist spy in 1978 and tried for sabotage, a capital crime, by an extremist Islamic group in Morocco.

While searching for a universal religion in Casablanca, I was invited to study Islam in a mosque; it turned out to be controlled by a militant Moslem group which promptly imprisoned me.

My questions as to the treatment of women served as a catalyst for one of the Islamic gurus to unjustly charge me with being a Zionist spy and sabotage of the "back to Islam" movement. I was eventually acquitted by an internal inquisitorial tribunal, but remained a prisoner behind the towering walls of the mosque located in the outskirts of Casablanca.

This harrowing ordeal was followed by excruciating suspense built up during attempts to escape the 10-foot high compound.

The book is an autobiographical narrative about my spiritual path and about fundamentalist religions and brainwashing techniques. It also discusses the status of women in orthodox/fundamentalist Islamic communities.

I was able to withstand total conversion to an extreme version of Islam due to profound knowledge of different religions and the desire to focus and meditate on the common denominators among them.

"Storm Over Morocco", however, does not criticize Islam and often portrays me as a student who learned a great deal from that religion.

This experience has inspired me to organize and participate in interfaith events including but not limited to fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians in Israel and Palestine

I am a tenured professor at the University of Paris, adjunct professor at Golden Gate University (San Francisco) and member of the California and Marseille Bars.

You can contact me at any time by calling my cell number or sending an email. The following is my contact information: Cell: 011 33 6 7827 9607, Email:


Frank Romano

Posted by: Frank Romano | December 11, 2007 2:36 AM

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