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
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