The 9 Books That Helped Me Get Through My Darkest Times

by Charlotte Ahlin

Yes, Internet, it's true: sometimes I get sad. Sadness comes for all of us in different shapes and forms. Sometimes it's grief, or existential angst, or crying in Starbucks after a bad break up. Sometimes it's stress, or just a month of inexplicable "blah"-ness that washes over your every action. When I'm feeling down, and all the usual remedies like Nutella and binge-watching The Office haven't worked, I turn to my book shelf. Books have always helped me ride out painful emotions, whether I need a laugh, a cheerful story, or just a better way to wallow. Here are some of the wonderful books that have helped me during my saddest times.

There is a Douglas Adams quote I half remember reading once (it seems to have disappeared entirely into the wilds of the internet) that compared bad moods to bad weather. It can't always be sunny. You're going to see the occasional rainstorm, or sometimes a week of overcast days. As life experience and the Pixar movie Inside Out has taught us, feeling blue is a natural part of being alive.

So, if you're feeling sad right now, or even just planning ahead for your next emotional slump, don't beat yourself up. Brew yourself a mug of tea, find a warm animal to snuggle, and read a book that will help you through the tough times. Here are a few of mine:


'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams himself struggled with depression throughout his life. Hence why Marvin, the Paranoid Android, is such a deeply relatable figure. But, Marvin aside, the Hitchhiker's Guide book are some of the most wonderfully hilarious, brilliantly absurd books ever written. Whenever I feel a general malaise about life, I turn to Adams to remind me that everything can be simultaneously beautiful and pointless and funny. Plus there's something comforting about the Hitchhiker's universe, in which God's final words to his creations were (big spoiler alert): "WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE."

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'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

Yes, I am telling you, dear Internet, that reading The Bell Jar actually makes me feel better when I'm feeling down. There is a fair bit of attempted suicide in this book, so it's not going to be a helpful read for everyone. But, for a book written in the '50s, it's shockingly relevant when it comes to battling depression, sexism, and disappointing internships. It's funny, brutal, and ultimately uplifting. Don't let Plath's reputation fool you, this book is as much about recovery as it is about depression.

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'Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns' by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling is simply delightful. Her essays are like the distillation of a sleepover with all your best friends. When I'm feeling bummed out, totally at a loss for how to proceed in love/friendship/a career in the arts, I can always fall back on Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? You can read the whole book in one afternoon, and feel a little better knowing that you're not alone in feeling weird about being a smart, confused young person.

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'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling

Extremely controversial opinion: Order of the Phoenix is probably the Harry Potter book that I re-read the most as a teenager. It was my least favorite the first time around... but damn if J.K. doesn't just nail all the angst and anger and grief that comes with growing up. Plus, this is the one that introduces us to Dumbledore's Army. I re-read all the other HP books to feel comforted by happy childhood memories, but I re-read this one to work through my existential anger at the world and/or government.

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'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I read Americanah during my semester abroad. I was recovering from a toxic relationship, grieving for a family member, experiencing acute homesickness, and my crush had just rejected me (on the grounds that he was not attracted to women, but still). I didn't feel great. The culture shock I was feeling was nowhere near what Ifemelu goes through moving from Nigeria to American in Americanah, and my boy drama was not quite as romantic. But Americanah still spoke to everything I was feeling.

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'The Portable Dorothy Parker' by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy has helped me through many a break up. But she's not really the author to read if you want someone to remind you that things get better, or that there are plenty of fish in the sea. She's the friend you call the morning after you're been dumped, to take you out to a boozy brunch, make you laugh, and help you set up a witty Tinder profile. Her acerbic short stories and bitter rhyming couplets are just as cutting today as they were in the '30s. So if a garbage man/woman/person has broken your heart, give Dorothy a try.

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'The Sandman: Brief Lives' by Neil Gaiman

Read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, no matter what mood you're in. It's bizarre, angsty, beautiful, and brilliant in its own messy, mythological way. Volume 7, Brief Lives, holds a special place in my heart as the book I always reread when I'm coping with some kind of loss or big change. It's about mortality, moving on, the complex nature of reality, sure — but it's also a zany road trip starring the moody Dream, his erratic little sister Delirium, and Matthew, the talking raven.

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'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare' by William Shakespeare

Not to be a pretentious ass, but I like to read Shakespeare when I'm sad (just be glad that I didn't put Joyce's Ulysses on this list). Obviously I don't re-read the Complete Works from cover to cover every time it's cloudy out, but I'll flip to a particular monologue or scene, and process my feelings with some blank verse. I recommend Helena's speeches from All's Well That Ends Well for unrequited love, anything from Hamlet for when everyone's getting on your case, and Much Ado About Nothing for when you want to feel cultured but also read a goofy rom-com.

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'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

I re-read my first copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so many times that the glue in the spine disintegrated and all the pages fell out. I identified strongly with Francie, the shy, bookish girl from Brooklyn, even though she lived a hundred years earlier (and I was from Manhattan). This book is both comforting and difficult: for all the charming, old-timey childhood scenes, there's also an unflinching portrayal of poverty, loss, and longing. Ultimately though, it's a book about perseverance, about being the titular tree that grows out of concrete, and about the beauty that can be found even in the bleakest of places.

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