The best books to make you forget (temporarily) you’re depressed

George Scialabba Author Of How to Be Depressed
By George Scialabba

Who am I?

My mental life has been divided between arguing and imagining. I’m a freelance book critic: when I’m healthy, I read and write about politics and philosophy most of the time and relax with literature and history the rest of the time. When I’m badly depressed, the former activities go by the board: I can’t make or summarize an argument to save my life. Mostly I’m good for nothing but streaming, if even that. But a few times when depressed I’ve laid my hands on books that have allowed me to forget about the crushing pain for a few hours. I wanted to give the same chance to others in that unhappy predicament.

I wrote...

How to Be Depressed

By George Scialabba,

Book cover of How to Be Depressed

What is my book about?

George Scialabba is a prolific critic and essayist known for his incisive, wide-ranging commentary on literature, philosophy, religion, and politics. He is also, like millions of others, a lifelong sufferer from clinical depression.

In How To Be Depressed, Scialabba presents an edited selection of his mental health records spanning decades of treatment, framed by an introduction and an interview with renowned podcaster Christopher Lydon. The book also includes a wry and ruminative collection of "tips for the depressed," organized into something like a glossary of terms—among which are the names of numerous medications he has tried or researched over the years. Together, these texts form an unusual, searching, and poignant hybrid of essay and memoir, inviting readers into the hospital and the therapy office as Scialabba and his caregivers try to make sense of this baffling disease.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of Red Mars

Why did I love this book?

Quite a few people, including me, think this is the greatest work of science fiction ever written. It tells the story of the first human settlement on Mars, stretching over three generations. Usually, science fiction, when it’s good, is good at action, at a character, or at technical detail, but not all three (and rarely even two). Amazingly, Robinson is very good at all three. The central conflict stretching through the volumes is whether the settlers should adapt to Mars’s harsh, austerely beautiful environment or, with the aid of tremendous energy inputs, turn it into a version of Earth.

There are no villains; Robinson gives both sides good arguments. And his understanding of the biology and technology of the other planets and of space travel (on display in several of his other books as well) is awesome.

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Red Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's massively successful and lavishly praised Mars trilogy. 'The ultimate in future history' Daily Mail

Mars - the barren, forbidding planet that epitomises mankind's dreams of space conquest.

From the first pioneers who looked back at Earth and saw a small blue star, to the first colonists - hand-picked scientists with the skills necessary to create life from cold desert - Red Mars is the story of a new genesis.

It is also the story of how Man must struggle against his own self-destructive mechanisms to achieve his dreams: before he even sets foot…

A Perfect Spy

By John le Carré,

Book cover of A Perfect Spy

Why did I love this book?

Some people think spy novels are literature; most people don’t. But if there’s one spy novel that nearly everyone in the English-speaking world would agree is a great work of art, it’s John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy. It is (like most of Le Carre) about a middle-aged denizen of the English intelligence service. He seems a model spy, but a few small doubts arise about his loyalties. It turns out that he does have divided loyalties, but not in the usual, expected way. This main thread of the story is gripping enough, but interwoven with it is the story of the spy’s father, closely modeled on Le Carre’s father, one of the most unforgettable rogues you will ever meet.

By John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Perfect Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The best English novel since the war." -- Philip Roth

Over the course of his seemingly irreproachable life, Magnus Pym has been all things to all people: a devoted family man, a trusted colleague, a loyal friend-and the perfect spy. But in the wake of his estranged father's death, Magnus vanishes, and the British Secret Service is up in arms. Is it grief, or is the reason for his disappearance more sinister? And who is the mysterious man with the sad moustache who also seems to be looking for Magnus?

In A Perfect Spy, John le Carre has crafted one…

Past Tense

By Lee Child,

Book cover of Past Tense

Why did I love this book?

I can’t pick just one, and they’re really all the same. The burly, idiosyncratic title character, an Army veteran, is like a knight-errant, stumbling into colossal evildoings and coolly saving America, the Army, or (occasionally) a pretty woman. The books are popcorn, potato chips, cotton candy – once you pick them up, you’ll rarely read less than a hundred pages. Is it art? Most definitely not. But will it get you through a very bad afternoon? Quite possibly.

By Lee Child,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Past Tense as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The most hotly anticipated thriller of the year follows our hero Jack Reacher on a quest into his father's past, and climaxes in the most blood-curdling ticking time bomb of an adventure yet.

The present can be tense . . .

A young couple trying to get to New York City are stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. Before long they're trapped in an ominous game of life and death.

But the past can be worse . . .

Meanwhile, Jack Reacher sets out on an…


By George Eliot,

Book cover of Middlemarch

Why did I love this book?

All good novels try to explain us to one another and open our hearts to one another. This, one of the greatest of all novels, does these things superlatively well. Set in a quiet town in 19th-century England, it’s as eventful as The Iliad or War and Peace. Most of its characters go about their lives with a heartbreaking lack of self-knowledge, which the author imparts to them (and to us) without ever preaching or condescending. Some readers will be impatient with its slow pace and oblique humor, but those who are drawn in will find the hours flying away.

By George Eliot,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Middlemarch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the BBC's '100 Novels That Shaped Our World'

'One of the few English novels written for grown-up people' Virginia Woolf

George Eliot's nuanced and moving novel is a masterly evocation of connected lives, changing fortunes and human frailties in a provincial community. Peopling its landscape are Dorothea Brooke, a young idealist whose search for intellectual fulfilment leads her into a disastrous marriage to the pedantic scholar Casaubon; Dr Lydgate, whose pioneering medical methods, combined with an imprudent marriage to the spendthrift beauty Rosamond, threaten to undermine his career; and the religious hypocrite Bulstrode, hiding scandalous crimes from his…

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why did I love this book?

I like the Harry Potter books, but compared to them, The Lord of the Rings is as Shakespeare to … well, the Jack Reacher books I recommended above. The story of the One Ring has an architectural complexity, a symbolic resonance, a metaphoric richness, and a stylistic beauty one wouldn’t expect to find in fantasy literature – maybe because it sits on the boundary of fantasy and epic. 

This is the book among the five recommended here that the reader is most likely to have encountered. But unless you’ve read it in the last 6-8 years or so, I predict you’ll soon be recaptured by it, as I’ve been several times.

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Why should I read it?

52 authors picked The Lord of the Rings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

From Sauron's fastness in the Dark Tower of…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in good and evil, Mars, and treason?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about good and evil, Mars, and treason.

Good And Evil Explore 104 books about good and evil
Mars Explore 63 books about Mars
Treason Explore 12 books about treason

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Winter King, Contact, and Children of Ash and Elm if you like this list.