The best books to help you keep on living with chronic illness

Who am I?

Like my main character, I’m a Norwegian writer with ties to the US, who grew up with various chronic illnesses. I discovered the reason for much of my trouble when I was diagnosed with endometriosis. Isolated and in pain, I have always turned to books. I craved seeing my life reflected. Since Please Read This Leaflet Carefully came out, I’ve heard from many readers. I hope that it can help people who haven’t seen themselves in art before. This list addresses the needs of a life with chronic illness and pain: guidance, darkness, humor, comfort, and poetry. I hope these books will help you as much as they did me. 


I wrote...

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully: Keep This Leaflet. You May Need to Read It Again.

By Karen Havelin,

Book cover of Please Read This Leaflet Carefully: Keep This Leaflet. You May Need to Read It Again.

What is my book about?

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a life told in reverse and a subversion of what we expect from stories of illness. Having been diagnosed with endometriosis in her twenties, we follow Laura Fjellstad in her struggle to live a normal life across New York, Paris, and Oslo, fueled by her belief that to survive her chronic illness she must be completely self-reliant.

Moving backwards through time from 2016 to 1995, we meet Laura’s younger selves: her healthier selves. Laura as a daughter, a figure skater, a lover, and a mother. To be devoured intensely in one sitting, Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a remarkable debut novel with bracing emotional insights and piercing descriptions of pain that linger in one’s mind long after the last page. 

The books I picked & why

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Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

By Tony Kushner,

Book cover of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Why this book?

Angels in America was the first place I saw a fuller depiction of life with serious illness, and it blew my mind. Prior, who has AIDS, is arguably the main character. The focus doesn’t cut away from him the second things get very bad. Instead, we stay and see him through. I believe deeply in the power of seeing one’s darkest moments honestly reflected in art. I first discovered Angels through the amazing TV series with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep and it broke my heart into a thousand pieces. When I later read the plays, I was amazed at how funny they are. The joke density is very high. The bleakness and pathos combined with incisive humor are what make these amazing works of art some of my all-time favorites. 


How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

By Toni Bernhard,

Book cover of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

Why this book?

How to Be Sick is a soothing and strengthening book that offers tools that are useful for any creature living a life with a human body and heart. It contains many Buddhist-inspired mindfulness techniques that I use daily, such as ways to adjust one’s thoughts and approach, ways to work with acceptance and grief, and ways to find pleasure and joy when they are hard to come by.


Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times

By Neil Astley,

Book cover of Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times

Why this book?

This collection, published by Bloodaxe Books, categorizes poems loosely by theme and contains a treasure trove of the best poems to help you keep on living when life is too hard. There is a wide range of themes, as well as some uplifting poems that explore everything beautiful about being alive.


Lessons in Taxidermy: A Compendium of Safety and Danger

By Bee Lavender,

Book cover of Lessons in Taxidermy: A Compendium of Safety and Danger

Why this book?

This is the first book where I read about experiences of childhood illness similar to my own. Reading it was both shocking and deeply cathartic in a way that felt almost dangerous. It is also a cold hard look at class, age, and intergenerational trauma in relation to health and healthcare in the US. It exists in its own category in my mind. All I can say is read it, just not on a bad pain day. 


The Disability Studies Reader

By Lennard J. Davis,

Book cover of The Disability Studies Reader

Why this book?

I was absolutely stunned when I read "Unspeakable Conversations" by Harriet McBryde Johnson, one of the many brilliant pieces included in this reader. My edition is from 2010, but new and updated editions have come out since. It explores questions of interdependency and independence, gender, the body, sexuality, biases in science and medicine, and physical disabilities, and investigates issues around pain, mental disability, and invisible disabilities.

Becoming familiar with some disability theories has been invaluable to me. My capacity to read myself as disabled has grown and still fluctuates. To know that sharp minds have been working on this and that it isn’t only a private issue but a political and theoretical one, one that can be marked by joy and humor as well as grief, struggle, and hardship, is immensely helpful. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in chronic illness, gay men, and people with disabilities?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about chronic illness, gay men, and people with disabilities.

Chronic Illness Explore 14 books about chronic illness
Gay Men Explore 44 books about gay men
People With Disabilities Explore 39 books about people with disabilities

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Discovering Hope, Laughter for the Sick and Tired, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating if you like this list.