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A Short Reading List To Help You Get Through Tough Times

Let a good book transport you to a more peaceful, compassionate state of mind

Istanbul, Turkey. Nice, France. Dallas, Texas. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dhaka, Bangladesh. Orlando, Florida. Throw in Brexit and the toxic rhetoric surrounding the American presidential race, and it can feel as if intolerance and malice are lurking behind every corner.


Thought leaders like Steven Pinker argue that we’re currently living in the most peaceful time since the beginning of humanity. But if you’re having trouble believing that lately, I recommend getting off the internet, turning off cable news, and picking up a book. For me, reading has always been an easy way to hang up my fears and anxieties, at least momentarily.

A number of studies have found that literary fiction increases our “capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires”—in other words, our empathy. London’s School of Life (SOL) builds on this notion, with bibliotherapists creating custom reading lists for clients in need of a little healing. In the New Yorker, one SOL client described how the process “helped her cope with the fallout from a series of calamities, including losing her husband, the end of a five-year engagement, and a heart attack.”

The following books have always transported me out of dismal times, or at least helped me understand them better. I hope they do the same for you.

Paul Beatty’s Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor

In need of a good laugh? Satirist, poet, and novelist Paul Beatty has compiled an impressive collection of humor writing by African Americans spanning more than a century. Humor has always been a key component of healing in African American culture, but what’s relevant about the wit here is that it doesn’t suppress rage, sadness, or grief—it offers a safe way to express it.

Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Religious scholar and nun Karen Armstrong provides a simple primer to improving our relationships with ourselves and others by practicing basic human dignity, respect, and compassion—all of which the world could use more of these days. Trust me, this isn’t a book only for the religious. Kindness and love are beyond faith.

Teju Cole’s Open City

In this beautiful, meditative novel, we follow a young Nigerian doctor post-breakup as he wanders around New York City not long after 9/11. Along the way, he comes across characters from every walk of life, each of them sharing their life stories. The book’s meandering pace is soothing, while the people the protagonist encounters offer him (and the reader) a crash course in empathy-building.

Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Magical realism and fantasy are all about escape and accepting the unexplainable. In Mama Day, Naylor takes us to two islands, one very real, the other Willow Springs, where everyone is descended from slaves and living without the racist laws of humankind. Naylor uses supernatural elements to reveal how African Americans can attain true freedom in a world that seeks to control and define them. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, readers go on an unbelievable journey through time and space as the hero Toru Okada learns how to overcome suffering and loneliness, purportedly on a search for his wife’s cat.

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