What Books Make the Best Escapes?

Alison Morris -- February 10th, 2009

This week has gotten off to a truly sad start, as I received some terrible news from some friends of mine today. In thinking about what I could do for them to help them through this difficult time it struck me that some "escapist reading" might be one of the few truly helpful things I could give them right now (apart from intangible things like love and support, of course). Maybe a few books they might be able to lose themselves in for a few minutes or (in the best of cases) hours at a time. I’d like to get your recommendations for this gift, but first, here’s a recommendation of mine.

At the risk of over-sharing I’ll just say that I lost one of my dearest and closest friends almost six years ago after he lost his long-standing battle with depression. It goes without saying that his loss was devastating to me. In the first few months after his suicide I searched for comfort, understanding, and escape in the pages of books, hoping that something might speak to me and say whatever it was I most needed to hear. I found, though, that I didn’t have the attention span for anything lengthy. The longest book I could make it through in its entirety was the very short Darkness Visible by William Styron, which did more for my understanding of depression than anything I’d read before or have read since. Apart from that one, though? Books — fiction or non-fiction (and I tried LOTS) — weren’t really helping. It was poems that did the trick.

A few months before my world unravelled I’d picked up the British edition of a poetry anthology from our galley pile at the store. The collection was about to be reissued here and, though, it had one of the WORST titles I’d seen in ages, I dipped into its pages and really enjoyed what I read there. Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley is a collection of poems on almost every imaginable subject that’s related to the topics of life and death. It’s a brilliant mix of older poems and more contemporary pieces, but what I love most about it is that almost all of the poems are highly readable. Their topics they cover are often deep but the poems themselves aren’t written in the types of puzzling styles that stump people who haven’t been raised to love the stuff.

In any case, after losing my friend and finding my brain too addled for lengthier things, I began reading lots of poetry, and this was the book I began to explore in depth for the first time, as I read poem after poem after poem. My friend had been a poet, so it seemed right to be immersing myself in his world at such length. It felt like maybe reading poetry was what I was "supposed" to be doing in some odd way. That feeling was fully confirmed for me when I finally read the last poem in the book and found in it all the things that I’d most needed to know, hear, think, be reassured about when it came to accepting my friend’s loss.

It’s this poem that I now share with anyone who’s lost a loved one, because to my mind there’s nothing better. I can recite it from memory because it’s permanently etched on my heart. Its words are the ones I repeat to myself whenever I think of my friend or the other people whose lives touched mine before they went… elsewhere. And now, I’m sharing it with you.

Late Fragment by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

With that heady introduction I say that, for me, poetry is great escape reading — and this book of poetry in particular. Now I ask you: what reading (either type of reading or specific books) do you think makes for a great escape from, well… life in general? (Bonus points if your recommendation is also a good escape from the subject of death, specifically.) Please share knowing that you’re lending a hand both to me and to some friends in need, for which we all thank you.

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