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.

The books I picked & why

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Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of Red Mars

Why 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.

A Perfect Spy

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of A Perfect Spy

Why 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.

Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel

By Lee Child,

Book cover of Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel

Why 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 George Eliot,

Book cover of Middlemarch

Why 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.

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mars, treason, and bildungsroman?

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