How reading made me happy again, aka a bibliophile’s bibliotherapy

“The impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write – and rereading the beloved books of the past – constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing.

Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And yes, inspiration.”

– Susan Sontag, ‘Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite.’ in Writers on Writing (2001)

Ever seen a pillow menu before? If not, you’re not missing out on much. Except for just about the most hilarious piece of literature I’ve recently come across. Check it out:

Item 12: An Igusa pillow. “Remarkably comfortable” and “made from Japanese Igusa grass”. And a “comforel pillow” that’s so mind-blowingly comfortable the word ‘comfortable’ alone no longer suffices to convey the extent of its comfort. You’ve gotta hand it to  human civilisation sometimes. When your bedtime agony is about deliberating between a “micro and ball-fiber pillow (FIRM)” and a “feather and down pillow (FIRM)”, that’s how you can tell humanity has made real leaps and strides since the d-o-wn of time.

All lame puns aside, this menu got me thinking about useless lists. And convention has it that New Year is all about making useless lists; lists that you know you’ll never fulfill but write up anyway because it feels damn good to give your life a semblance of put-togetherness. So there.


Welcome to the club.

And if you’ve amassed a hefty sum of post-it to-do memos over the years, you’re probably a sucker for resolution lists as well. According to the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, you’re probably also an INTJ (Introversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judging), which is the type that I belong to.

Apparently, this means I have a thing for planning ahead and relying on logic over feelings when evaluating situations – someone who is “serious, analytical and perfectionistic”. Not entirely sure I like the sound of that; I mean, I’m often goofy, illogical and chillaxed about my flaws as well, so go figure.

All this is just generalisation though, because while I’m a fan of daily to-dos, I’m a naysayer of annual ‘to-achieves’. Coming up with ‘resolutions’ that I somehow have to frame my life around seems constraining, and makes me seem like some kind of corporate cadre who exists for the sole purpose of hitting growth rate targets. Eugh.

life_lemonadeStill, I’ve come to find structure to be a strange source of solace, especially at times when life has given me lemons and I don’t even like lemonade.

This impulse to structure is something which I apply to my daily reading regime. Most of my friends find it unbelievable that I can muster up the self-discipline to update this blog, but I actually find it harder to read than to write on a regular basis.

It often depends on how much I empathize with the book’s narrative: if it’s a dry dud about some delusional dude (and there have been several of these), then I’ll likely finish it at snail’s pace while cursing myself for believing in back-cover blurbs again, but if the book is emotionally engaging and literally ‘unputdownable’ (a word that back-cover blurb writers should really stop using), then I can usually finish it in a day.


The most half-arsedly overblown attempt at flattery ever

Writing blog posts and journal entries, on the other hand, involves mostly just me blabbering on about me/what I think is important, so naturally this would require less incentive to kick-start. Naturally.


Could this be Bibliotherapy?

Having said that, I’ve reaped surprising rewards from sticking to a regular reading routine.


This is a pretty accurate shot of my OMG face

And I don’t just mean the obvious intellectual benefits, but the therapeutic ones as well. I say this because a couple of months ago, I had a bit of a ‘quarter-life crisis’ when all I could think about was ‘OMG I’m now offish 21 and have no idea what I’m doing or where this is all going or why I could possibly have no idea re the what/where/whys of my life’.

In short, I was looking for immediate answers to future contingencies, so basically thinking myself into a paradoxical rut where no answers could be given except by the experiences that have yet to happen.

I also found it difficult to accept that people in real life are a different kettle of fish from the people back in school. For starters, I couldn’t avoid the ones I wanted to avoid and I found it increasingly difficult to see the ones I wanted to see. Mind you, I’m guessing that most people undergo this kind of transitional epiphany when they get out of university, so I don’t think my experience was anything too special.

Still, I was a bundle of emotions at that point in time, and objectively not the most pleasant person to be around just because I didn’t find talking about my feelings to anyone too helpful, much to the confusion of friends and the frustration of family.

Instead, I clammed up, channelled my inner nerd and stocked up on novels and memoirs about people who couldn’t be more different than me and went through them one after another allowing myself no breathing space in between like a bunny on steroids.

I simply refused to stop. I gobbled down books by the bulk.

The second I got off work I’d reach for the book in my bag; the moment I reached the final page I’d grab a new one from the shelf; the point at which I’m done with a batch I’d bounce off to buy a new batch etc etc etc.

solitary reading

One of my favourite postcards – from the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris

By vicariously living the lives of others, I excused myself from living my own, even if only for the brief duration of a metro ride. After all, I thought I was stretching my empathy tendons by putting myself in so many shoes, and racking up a good amount of workout for the EQ to make up for my physical sloth on the treadmill.

Questionable logic, I know, but hey, it worked wonders. Soon enough, characters like Jonathan Safran Foer’s fatherless 9-year old in Extremely Loud, Saul Bellow’s divorced and unemployed professor in Herzog, and Diaz’s luck- and loveless Yunior in This is How you Lose Her put the way I saw my life in perspective.

Granted, I didn’t turn into “the Wordsworthian youth in ‘Tintern Abbey’… roused to awareness of self extended [to] the highest pitch of consciousness”, nor did I suddenly change from being Moaning Myrtle to Little Miss Sunshine. It’s just that I gained a more temperate outlook on this vexing business called living, largely by reminding myself that just because I have to start paying taxes now doesn’t mean I need to already have had the ins and outs of adulthood down pat.

I mean, virtually no one in the books I’ve read has done that, and I suspect this goes for most of the real people I know too. But it’s easy to lose sight of this sometimes.


I’d like to be her all the time.

Matthew Arnold to the rescue

arnoldWhat strikes me as most interesting though, is how I instinctively turned to reading as my default remedy for stress. I suspect this has something to do with Matthew Arnold’s influence, who I researched extensively for my final-year dissertation at university.

The Victorian sage couldn’t have put it better in his 1880 essay ‘The Study of Poetry’, wherein he exhorts the post-industrial generation to rely on poetry (understood more in terms of the literary imagination than the literary mode itself) as a lodestar for living:

We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.

Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete… [and] the day will come when we shall wonder at ourselves for having trusted to them, for having taken them seriously; and… the more we shall prize ‘the breath and finer spirit of knowledge’ offered to us by poetry.

It seems, then, that the residual effects of studying Arnold have stuck.

This is also why I was ‘inspired’ by the pillow menu to come up with my own ‘bibliotherapeutic menu’, which I’d like to share with you all below. As manuals that aim to make one’s life easier, these two things are really not that different in nature, but I reckon mine is a lot more durable in terms of effect (not to mention a lot more accessible).

The selection is based on works that I’ve read in the past few months, so down the line I might update my right column of ‘books to read’. But the left column is arguably timeless, as ‘#feels’ are sentiments that I’m sure we all experience from time to time.

Disclaimer: This isn’t some voodoo prescription of a lit-crazed pseudo-bibliotherapist, just a subjective summary of which book I think could help most whenever you find yourself in the following 9 states of mind, and a personal tribute to the authors who have tide me through some downbeat times since my return to Hong Kong half a year ago.


Jen’s Bibliotherapeutic Menu (as of Jan 2016)


Your Bibliotherapeutic Answer (i.e. The book to read)**

1) …when you are feeling sad and want to wallow in your sadness

Fernando Pessoa, ‘The Book of Disquiet’ (1940s)


2) …when it seems that the whole world is against you and nothing is going your way

Saul Bellow, ‘Herzog’ (1964)


3) …when you are feeling philosophical and contemplative about life

Javier Marias, ‘A Heart so White’ (1992)


4) …when you are just straight up bored out of your mind


Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ (1973)

FullSizeRender (4)

5) …when you feel like the dumbest person in the world and need to feel less dumb


Italo Svevo, ‘Zeno’s Conscience’ (1928)


6) …when you just went on a shit date and swear for the last time that you don’t get the opposite sex

Junot Diaz, ‘This is How you Lose Her’ (2012)


7) …when you just want to read a good story

Alain de Botton, ‘Essays in Love’ (1993)

de botton_essays in love

8) …when you just want to write a good story but can’t

Bernard Malamud, ‘The Tenants’ (1972)


9) …when you feel like you’ve not cried in like forever and doubt if your tear ducts are still functioning


Goncalo M Tavares, ‘Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique’ (2007)


10)   …when you need reminding why your life isn’t so bad after all

Joan Didion, ‘Blue Nights’ (2011)

didion_blue nights

*Happy to lend my copies to anyone who’s interested. Just say the word. 

**I’ll be reviewing them in my future posts. 



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