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Classics to read when you're depressed - research for the top ten

Literary Snobs

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Nov 17, 2011, 3:09pm Top

Coming off the back of reading a truly gruelling and moving novel (We're Fu*ked, by Sean Armstrong) about a man with depression who reads too many classics and possibly suffers because of it, I was wondering what classics would be good for somebody, like myself, struggling with general existential unhappiness, to read.

A literary precription, as it were.

And not just stuff to cheer you up, though that's important, but stuff to divert and stimulate, analyse and affirm. For example, I'd probably have The Magic Mountain, something by Bukowski and The Death of Ivan Ilyich in my top ten...

What do you reckon?

Nov 17, 2011, 3:10pm Top

Infinite Jest assuming you have not already read it.

Nov 17, 2011, 3:10pm Top

Not that it's a classic if by that you mean more than 100 years old or whatever.

Nov 17, 2011, 3:58pm Top

No I haven't, but have been meaning to get hold of anything by David F W for a while. Thanks for the tip that means it definitely goes into the Xmas wishlist. I think modern classics have a right to be in the top ten, if they're good enough certainly.

Nov 17, 2011, 5:02pm Top

Ah, general existential unhappiness...not sure whether you want to avoid it or wallow in it so my recommendations include a bit of both.

Of the classic classics:
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Woman in White
Under Western Eyes
A Passage to India

More modern stuff:
The Magus
A Confereracy of Dunces
Anything by John Banville or Philip Roth

On the more cheery side Saki and PG Wodehouse are always good for a break from the heavier stuff

Edited: Nov 17, 2011, 5:26pm Top

When you figure out the answer to your question, let me know. But the book you mentioned sounds like my cup of tea.

In the meantime, read Shakespeare's comedies and stay away from Hardy.

Nov 17, 2011, 5:34pm Top

Hardy! I forgot about him! See my review of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Or, if you want something even arguably worse, see Jude the Obscure.

Nov 17, 2011, 6:01pm Top

Yes, I haven't found myself reaching for the Hardy of late, Conrad though, is always near. Nothing like a proper colonial meltdown with Kurtz, or the brilliantly damning little short, 'An Outpost of Progress'.
There's definitely always going to be a place for a big historical epic, like Dumas, or Tolstoy, or even Grossman's Life and Fate, which is grim but so heroic and brave.

What about a spot of stronger medicine? Some Beckett and Kafka to stare it all in the face.

Nov 17, 2011, 6:12pm Top

Or Celine, if he has not already been brought up... I have not read him but hear he is pretty nihilist.

Nov 17, 2011, 6:40pm Top

I'd recommend War and Peace, since in its pages is nearly everything that makes up life, it is considered the greatest novel ever written and is long enough to get lost in and contemplate for a significant amount of time (with me it was a year).

I'd also say the stories of Chekhov, though they're a grim lot. His letters would be appropriate on the side - it might do a depressed person good just to know there was ever someone as humane as Chekhov around.

Read Waiting for Godot, but avoid In the Penal Colony.

For something less thought-provoking/cathartic, I may simply advise Three Men in a Boat.

Nov 17, 2011, 6:49pm Top

Nov 17, 2011, 7:09pm Top

Now we're talking.

Totally agree with War and Peace, Chekhov (just finished the newly discovered/translated shorts) and Bartleby (a total gem), Celine is a hard one. I've read Journey to the end of the night, and North, and while his candour and style is engaging, it was hard to like him, not just because of his politics, he just didn't seem like a very nice person.

Nov 17, 2011, 7:15pm Top

Little,Big. Can't describe the feeling you get when you get close to the end.

Nov 17, 2011, 7:37pm Top

I'm not sure if Mr Weston's Good Wine would be really good, or really not. It depends which of his wines you are currently tending to, I suppose.

Nov 17, 2011, 10:21pm Top

#13 That's my depression goto book.

I always find Trollope a bit soothing, perhaps Barchester Towers?

Nov 18, 2011, 5:35am Top

The Enchanted April for feel-good spirit-lifting lusciousness. Middlemarch, Passage to India, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists or anything by Dickens or Wilkie Collins for lose-yourself-in-another-world-ness.

Nov 18, 2011, 5:46am Top

Am liking the diversity of suggestions here. A couple I haven't heard of; a couple I have but haven't read; and some good reminders about old favourites like Forster and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist.

Kind of comforting as well to see other people thinking about these things and offering up top tips. A good thing to be doing methinks.

Nov 18, 2011, 9:51pm Top


Nov 18, 2011, 11:36pm Top

I may need to reread Little, Big soonish.

I would add East of Eden and The Once and Future King to the list. Both of them are pretty life-affirming in my eyes.

Nov 19, 2011, 7:51am Top

I love On the Road by Jack Kerouac. For me, it is very life-affirming. And travel-affirming. It makes me want to get off the sofa and go somewhere.

Also, Sherlock Holmes, for me, is good 'comfort food.'

How about a list of books to avoid if you are depressed? I can think of a few... mostly by Russian authors...

Nov 20, 2011, 7:08am Top

I just finished rereading South Riding and was struck by what a life-affirming book it is. It has no happy endings and terrible things happen to good people (and vice versa) but in that it is simply true to life. What is so wonderful about it is the way the characters survive their personal tragedies and go on to make the best they can of life without expecting everything to be neatly tied up with a pink ribbon. It isn't at all about how 'everything happens for a reason' or 'eveything works out fine in the end' any more than real life is but it is very much about the strength of the human spirit and the way that life, with all its griefs and imperfections, s still worth living.

Nov 20, 2011, 12:37pm Top

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Master and Man both are good. Harold Bloom I think said that Walt Whitman helped him get through a major depression. By all means avoid Hunger by Knut Hamsum and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Exercise might be better for a depression than reading though.

Edited: Nov 20, 2011, 2:04pm Top

East of Eden worked great for me when I was a teenager, but that was the closest I got to being depressed, so maybe you should ignore my opinion. Infinite Jest, well, I am struggling through it at the moment, and I wouldn't presume to recommend it to anyone (or not recommend it either really - it's just not working for me). War and Peace does sound like a good recommendation, though I skipped huge chunks when I read it, but maybe I should try it again. For a good laugh with some food for thought, I would recommend Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett.

Nov 20, 2011, 2:49pm Top

Infinite Jest is the bleakest novel I've ever read, so it would be horrible to read when depressed.

Nov 20, 2011, 6:06pm Top

The Crow by Ted Hughes -- Anarchic, violent, pagan, and funny. Perfect for those fed up with the tired idiocies and common stupidities in the human race, aka any election period.

Nov 20, 2011, 6:11pm Top

Yeah, based on the OP having recently read books about deression I totally misinterprepted the quesstion. The books I have listed in 2,7, 9 and 11 are experiences of depressionn, noot good for cheering up at ALL. Foor cheering upI go to Austen, or Adam Bede by Eliot, or a fuunny mystery by Barnnard, Block or E. Peters.

Nov 20, 2011, 6:12pm Top

Please ignore double letters. It is very frustrating to "type" on an ereader.

Nov 20, 2011, 11:16pm Top

Haven't read any Wodehouse, but if the TV adaptations give any clue, they should be a good source for a chuckle.

Nov 21, 2011, 12:32am Top

Wodehouse is awesome.

Nov 21, 2011, 4:57am Top

This is all good.

Wodehouse looking certain to get a nod. I still remember reading the story of the man who hated women novelists meeting and falling in love with a girl and then getting engaged. He promptly goes out to celebrate with a round of golf, his fiance meanwhile sits down to write her first novel. When she tells him her news Wodehouse describes his unlucky hero as feeling like he'd just discovered himself in Oxford Circus without his trousers on. Brilliant!

Infinite Jest seems to be popping up quite frequently and dividing opinion a little. My days of unfamiliarity with this book are surely numbered.

Edited: Nov 21, 2011, 6:06am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Nov 21, 2011, 6:18am Top

Third time trying to post the same message. Here goes.

Nov 21, 2011, 6:18am Top

Third time trying to post the same message. Here goes.

Nov 21, 2011, 7:00am Top

When I get depressed I often find myself reaching for one of a few children's classics - The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Tarka the Otter.

Or I go in quite the opposite direction - Edgar Allen Poe - equally a form of escapism in its way.

Nov 21, 2011, 7:34am Top

<34 Yes indeed. The Arabian Nights fits into the first category and Italo Calvino's collection of Fantastic Tales (which includes Poe) the second.

Nov 21, 2011, 7:36am Top

<34 Yes indeed. The Arabian Nights fits into the first category and Italo Calvino's collection of Fantastic Tales (which includes Poe) the second.

Nov 21, 2011, 7:38am Top

<34 Yes indeed. The Arabian Nights fits into the first category and Italo Calvino's collection of Fantastic Tales (which includes Poe) the second.

Nov 21, 2011, 8:49am Top

>30 maddesthatter:
...and don't forget "The clicking of Cuthbert", where Vladimir Brusiloff says "No novelists any good except me. Sovietski--yah! Nastikoff--bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me."

Wodehouse is generally the first thing I reach for, but I'd agree with most of the 19th century suggestions above. Scott and Kipling haven't been mentioned yet, and should be: Kipling is especially good if you're in the sort of mood where you can't face a 600-page epic. And if you get to the point where you can't be bothered to follow an intricate plot, there's always Firbank.

Nov 21, 2011, 12:50pm Top

Twain might be nice.

Nov 21, 2011, 3:15pm Top

<#26 Don't worry. I wasn't just looking for stuff to cheer me up. Sometimes it's good to be taken by the hand to the darker places, if only because they can be more challenging and affirming of the difficulty of things. If I'm honest, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Celine and Hughes are more up my street, but that probably makes me a masochist in some people's minds.

Delighted to see Walt Whitman get a mention. I always think of him in the scene in Specimen Days when he describes himself as an old man heading down to some lonely spot on the river every morning to do his exercises; stripping off, with his hands on his hips, making every sound his mouth and lungs can shape, then grappling with a young sappling for a while for the good of his arms and heart. Great stuff. Great stuff.

Nov 21, 2011, 4:19pm Top

Yes, Twain is a great pick me up. I am reading Life on the Mississippi right now.

Nov 21, 2011, 4:21pm Top

How could I forget my favorite, Tom Jones?

Nov 21, 2011, 4:40pm Top

Yep, Tom Jones is a great rec.

Nov 21, 2011, 10:03pm Top

>41 anna_in_pdx:

Anna, finish it, relax and then wait a few months or so. Then, when you need another Clemens fix, read A Tramp Abroad. Even better than Life on the Mississippi.

Nov 22, 2011, 7:00am Top

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch makes me feel better for some reason. Also the three first books of the Harry Potter series. Twain makes me more depressed, which goes to show how individual this is.

Nov 22, 2011, 7:15am Top

>45 DollyBantry:
After all, Harry Potter is just Ivan Denisovich with slightly warmer weather and socks instead of footcloths... :-)

Nobody's mentioned Burton yet. Is The anatomy of melancholy something to read when depressed, or something to avoid?

Nov 22, 2011, 9:38pm Top

>46 thorold: Hmm. That reminds me of Ray Bradbury's A Medicine for Melancholy, which is a great collection of short stories.

Nov 22, 2011, 10:44pm Top

When I grow up, I wanna have the child-like sense of wonder and mystery Ray Bradbury still retains, even after 90+ years.

Nov 23, 2011, 4:26am Top

I hadn't heard of Bradbury's collection and will certainly look it up.
I'm currently enjoying Italo Calvino's selection of Fantastic Tales which includes many of the authors mentioned here (Poe, Scott, Kipling and the like).
Was delighted to see Walt Whitman get a mention as well. I always think of him as he described himself (in Specimen Days) as an old man heading down to some lonely spot on the river every morning to do his exercises, stripped off, hands on hips making every noise his mouth and lungs can muster, then grabbing a young sapling and wrestling it for a while for the good of his arms and heart. Great stuff.

Nov 26, 2011, 6:57am Top

Not sure that they count as "classics", but I tend to head towards Georgette Heyer when I'm feeling melancholy. Unless I want a good cry, when Little Women or even Heidi comes in handy.

Nov 26, 2011, 3:23pm Top

50: Yes, I actually go for the comfort food type of book, often not a classic, when feeling down. Carl Hiaasen for example. (No matter how I spell his name it never looks right!)

Nov 26, 2011, 3:34pm Top

#50 I second the use of Heyer as comfort reading.

Nov 27, 2011, 6:55am Top

#50/52 And I second them as 'classics'. Maybe not everyone's type of classic, but classic nonetheless.

Aug 25, 2012, 12:54pm Top

David Copperfield. It's a long one, by the time you finish you'll have completely forgotten about slashing your wrist. ;)

Aug 26, 2012, 12:18am Top

Yes, Wodehouse's writing is as funny as the Fry&Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series. The series stays pretty true to the original in spirit, although they sometimes mash up a few stories together.

Book to avoid at all costs Darkness Visible by William Styron.

Classics? How about Candide. It's so cynical, it's got to make you laugh.

& if you're looking for a solid good book that is old but not every English speaker has run across it The House of Ulloa from Spain by Emilia Pardo Bazan.

& if you don't care if the novel was ever finished Dead Souls by Gogol.


Aug 26, 2012, 2:07pm Top

Yesterday I was down, because my ankle is not healing as fast as I want it to, and reading some Damon Runyon short stories cheered me right up.

Edited: Aug 26, 2012, 10:24pm Top

55: I'm a great fan of Fry and Laurie, but even they can't capture the spirit of Wodehouse. That's because the real humour is in the narrative voice of Bertie. It's not just the situations, it's the way he sees them and the words he uses to describe them. Take that away, and you're left with the situations themselves, still funny, but a pale shadow of the books. There have been various attempts to put Wodehouse on the small screen. I remember watching Ian Carmichael as Bertie when I was a small child. Later, John Alderton and Pauline Collins did some of the short stories, with varying degrees of success, and then Fry and Laurie. All faced the same problem.
And yes - what better to cheer you up than a few hours in the company of Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth?

Aug 27, 2012, 2:59pm Top

34 - Tarka the Otter was one of the most traumatic books I ever read (and I read it as an adult!). I've been afraid to re-read it for 20 years.

Aug 27, 2012, 3:55pm Top

@55) It's an unsnobbish confession, but when I read Dead Souls and started encountering editorial references to missing sections of manuscript, I thought it was just a method for jumping the story forward. It seemed to fit with Chichikov's fumbling journey. I usually avoid detailed reviews and introductions that might contain spoilers or predispose me to certain interpretations. I didn't realize until the end that it truly was a fragmented work.

Aug 27, 2012, 11:58pm Top

@59 Very fragmented!!! From what I know, there's one section that's considered "finished." He ran into trouble with the censors and dropped it for awhile. Then some of it got published and he started writing more which he never did actually finish. It's quite an odd book.

Aug 28, 2012, 3:56am Top

Formerly, when I was but a reader and not an author, 3 books could cure my depression. DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol and THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov, because the two books sounded highly entertaining and humorous, and the novel Peter I written by Aleksey Tolstoy, because in the 2 volumes of the book we can see the way to progress, from the medieval dusk towards the enlightenment, which is highly encouraging and entertaining too. Thanks.

Aug 28, 2012, 5:06am Top

The Russian authors I've read have only increased my depression. When I'm depressed I avoid them like the plague.

Most depressing book ever: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. G'dawful.

Aug 28, 2012, 2:10pm Top

I would add James Thurber to the list, along with Wodehouse.

Aug 28, 2012, 2:21pm Top

Don't forget Saki and Noel Coward

Aug 28, 2012, 3:00pm Top

David Copperfield. Because what could be better and more uplifting than that?

Aug 29, 2012, 12:13pm Top

Aug 30, 2012, 11:47pm Top

@66: With a chaser of Atlas Shrugged?

Sep 1, 2012, 9:46am Top

Alice in Wonderland has a few laughs of course.

Robin Hood could lift a mood.

Sep 1, 2012, 9:49am Top

Completely second Saki. Under rated in my opinion.

Sep 1, 2012, 3:57pm Top

Saki is like an Edwardian-era Wodehouse. So plenty of dithering aristocrats and perfect turns of phrase (is that the correct plural for that?). If one likes Three Men in a Boat, check out Saki. And he's not an Anglo-Catholic sourpuss like Evelyn Waugh can be, although Decline and Fall is highly recommended.

Sep 1, 2012, 4:09pm Top

I think the only thing I ever read by Saki was Tobermory, but it was great. Just read a bunch of Wodehouse, will try to read some Saki next time I am feeling down. Dippy aristocrats are fun to read about...

Sep 2, 2012, 2:50am Top

Saki always seemed to me to be a wry swine. (Did you see what I did there?)

Sep 2, 2012, 8:56am Top

#72 Oh funneeee! (It was quite good actually.)

Sep 9, 2012, 3:12pm Top

I always think of Saki as Wodehouse with sharp teeth.

Sep 11, 2012, 7:38am Top

Go on, someone explain Saki to me.

Sep 11, 2012, 7:59am Top

It's actually a beer, not a wine.

Sep 11, 2012, 9:53am Top

>70 kswolff:,74
The odd thing is that Saki and Wodehouse were quite close in age and both started out as writers at about the same time, but Saki always seems to belong to a much older generation because Wodehouse kept on going so much longer (Saki was killed in WWI).
I think No.74 sums it up pretty well: in Wodehouse the worst that can happen to any of the characters is embarrassment; Saki writes about much the same sort of people in much the same sort of pleasant, English, upper-middle-class settings, but he is quite happy for them to end up driven insane or killed and eaten if that makes for an interesting story.

Sep 11, 2012, 11:06am Top

77: Yeah, Saki is much darker than Wodehouse. And funnier if you like dark humor, but definitely that happy go lucky type of humor that characterizes Wodehouse is fun too.

Sep 11, 2012, 7:01pm Top

Anyone know how he got named after rice wine? I've always wondered that.

Sep 12, 2012, 10:21am Top

>79 nymith:
I don't think anyone knows for sure. According to Wikipedia the main competing theories are (i) cup-bearer in Omar Khayyam and (ii) South-American monkey.

Sep 13, 2012, 12:11pm Top

80: Those seem like the same theories espoused by birthers about Obama's genealogical origins.

Sep 13, 2012, 12:24pm Top

I like the Sufi oriented one. A lot of these people in this era were really into the Fitzgerald Omar Khayyam translations.

Sep 13, 2012, 1:56pm Top

I love Saki! and i've been dipping in and out of The Collected Short Stories of Saki over the past year. The introduction says about his name:

"Although Munro's pseudonym 'Saki' is described by the Oxford Companion to English Literature as being 'of unknown origin', Ethel Munro points out that her brother chose the name of the cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a favourite book."

Ethel Munro wrote a biography of Saki for the Bodley Head Complete Short Stories of Saki (1930).

Saki is definitely a good choice if you're feeling down. Allow me to present an example:
"...his family affection is really of a very high order. When his maternal grandmother died he didn’t go as far as to give up bridge altogether, but he declared on nothing but black suits for the next three months. That, I think, was really beautiful."

Sep 13, 2012, 2:25pm Top

83: I called it!

Also, yes those darkly humorous lines abound and are perfect for a chuckle when one is in a bad mood!

Sep 14, 2012, 7:32am Top

Tobermory! I heard that story as an audio file, once, and had no idea where it came from. The only reason I remember the name is that Tobermory is a town not far from here.

That was an awesome story. Is that typical Saki?

Sep 14, 2012, 9:29am Top

The Picture of Dorian Grey never fails to crack me up. The story itself is messed up, but the dialogue is hilarious.

Anything by Jane Austen tends to brighten me up, except Mansfield Park.

Sep 14, 2012, 9:45am Top

#85 The only reason I remember the name is that Tobermory is a town not far from here..

And a Womble!

Sep 14, 2012, 11:30am Top

85: Yes I think it is typical in that it has a sort of dark but funny ending. Tobermory himself reminds me a bit of the character who appears in a few stories, Vera the pre-teen, who scares people by inventing outrageous stories.

Jul 29, 2015, 8:17pm Top

I'm delighted to find this discussion! My recommendations are Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. Both have a little darkness mixed in with the humor. I've sat in restaurants and laughed out loud at both of these. Nothing sweeter than that.

Sep 7, 2015, 10:58pm Top

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth is one of the funniest novels I've read (completely different from his later work). For pure escapism, John Buchan or H. Rider Haggard are quite good.

Sep 8, 2015, 11:00am Top

I love the Gothic novels. Just read a bunch of H. Rider Haggard last year and Wilkie Collins the year before that. Pure escapism is right!

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