What Books Make the Best Escapes?

Alison Morris - February 10, 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.

19 thoughts on “What Books Make the Best Escapes?

  1. Julianne Daggett

    Since you talked so much about poetry I’d recommend the poets Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And actually what you said reminded me of a study that I learned about in a college poetry class. In the study two groups of people who had recently lost loved ones were given two sets of poetry to read. One set was given happy poetry and another was given death poetry. Some months later the two groups were brought back. The group that read happy poetry was not any happier and some had become more depressed and some had stopped reading the poetry because it had nothing to do with what they were feeling and reading happy poetry didn’t seem right to them since they were grieving. However the group that had read death poetry had felt better, more at peace and had reconciled with the death of their family member or friend, some had already moved on in their lives. The people in the study found that by confronting death, in the meaning and peace given in death poetry, the people in the second group could reconcile and find peace in death. Shakespeare’s death sonnets were particularly effective in this. Also the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix is great for this because the books are all about death and confronting death, but in a non-scary, almost peaceful way. Also I and probably everyone else that reads ShelfTalker, sends our condolences to you.

  2. LaurenBaratzLogsted

    Alison, I’m going to recommend Olive Ann Burns’ novel Cold Sassy Tree. Back in my bookseller days, a distraught woman came in wearing dark glasses that she wouldn’t take off and asked me to select a book for her. I gave her that book. She came in a week later without the sunglasses and told me I’d saved her life. Then she told me what she’d been through on the day I’d first seen her. Her story was awful but it was wonderful to know that a book had helped. Best wishes to you and your friends.

  3. kimj

    I’ve read short stories, some poems (Emily Dickinson actually has quite a few dealing with depression and/or death), and Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle’s books deal so often with loss or the fear of death that it really does help put your own grief into perspective. Her memoir on losing her husband is particularly moving & insightful.

  4. Mary Quattlebaum

    Have you read “Poets on Prozac,” a series of essays on depression written by contemporary poets? Since your friend was a poet, you may be comforted by (and gain some insight from) other word-weavers wrestling with despair.

  5. Debbie

    I would recommend anything by Janet Evanovich. Her books are funny, easy to read and don’t take a lot of thought. They always make me smile. Maybe during difficult times it would help to read a book that doesn’t take a lot of effort and get a smile or two in return!

  6. Monica Edinger

    For what it is worth, I remember after 9/11 (I’m a NYer) that all I could read was romance and fantasy. I remember someone else who lost a close friend that day felt similarly. I needed froth back then and galaxies far away.

  7. Karen Ruelle

    Pema Chodron is great for when you’re digging down deep into those feelings. But when I’m feeling down, I don’t always want something inspirational or enlightening. Sometimes I just want something easy and engrossing, something that will make me smile a little. If Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent doesn’t quite do the trick, I’ll turn to something like Elizabeth Peters’ entertaining mystery series about Amelia Peabody, intrepid Victorian archeologist/sleuth, beginning with Crocodile on the Sandbank and going right through all dozen or so books.

  8. EM

    How about THE PENDERWICKS? Aside from its wonderfully nostalgic tone (good escapism), there’s an undercurrent of loss that informs the characters’ relationships with each other and lift it above mere fluff. Or from another perspective, Elizabeth McCracken’s AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION is the most searing, honest, and readable portrait of grief I’ve read in . . . well, ever, maybe. I also recommend trashy celebrity magazines.

  9. suekush

    Alison – I love that Carver poem, too. I had to read at the funeral of someone I loved, and I’ve given the book that it’s from, “A New Path to the Waterfall” to 2 people who were dying. He writes so beautifully of his journey. As for escapes, I’d like to read something that makes me laugh out loud. Or Stephen King.

  10. Anon.

    My sympathy to your friends. A great escape — and a great book — is Treasure Island. Reading it is like witnessing the invention of the heist movie. The good heist movie. Also Robertson Davies for voice, plots, characters. Or Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, a little shaky at the start, a wonderful and funny world unto itself by the end.

  11. ShelfTalker

    This is a great mix of suggestions. Thanks, all of you, for your input and kind words. To Julianne, I would also add Mary Oliver to your list of recommended poets, as I think she’s a good companion, style-wise, to Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. I was intrigued by the poetry study you cited. Thanks for that.

  12. Peni Griffin

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are great to read when you’re depressed, because compared to Miles Vorkosigan, none of us have problems; but, as he says repeatedly, if Miles can do it (whatever “it” is, from coping with the hideous senseless death of a loved one to rescuing an entire prison camp from inside while stark naked – often at the same time) you can do it! Any author you love and feel secure with – from Louisa May Alcott to Tony Hillerman – can provide a nice binge read during a bad spell. I also spent a lot of time reading webcomics during my Year from Hell – specifically Narbonic, Get Medieval, and Order of the Stick. The cartoonists of Narbonic and Get Medieval have closed those storylines and started new comics, Skin Horse, Dumnestor’s Heroes, and Knowledge is Power. OOTS is still ongoing, but you pretty much have to play tabletop RPGs to get the jokes. Comics have the advantage of coming in short increments that are easy to absorb, like poetry, and webcomics tend to be more original and creative than things squeezed through the syndication process, though a lot of the creators aren’t professional enough to keep up the gruelling pace.

  13. Iskra Johnson

    Mostly I am posting to say how moving this whole blog entry and the string following it is. When I doubt the purpose and value of social networking and blogging something like this comes along that makes me smile at the depth and warmth possible using online communication. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have found a mix of hilarity and Buddhist teachings go a long way in dealing with grief, whether due to heartbreak or death. Augusten Burroughs’ “Dry” made me laugh until I cried after The Worst Heartbreak of My Life. Philip Moffitt’s “Dancing with Life” is the best book I have ever found on Buddhist thinking and strategies for understanding suffering. I love the study in the first post cited by Julianne, as it definitely resonates with my own experience of despair–the last thing I want when I’m miserable is Pollyanna!

  14. Julie

    For myself, I return to old childhood favorites, especially the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. But that wouldn’t work unless you knew your friends’ old childhood favorites. For people who can’t concentrate on a long piece, I often give “Travels With Alice” by Calvin Trillin. It’s made up of short essays/stories that include a lot of humor and tenderness.


    I recommend all of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith. The author himself describes them as “cup-of-tea books,” meant to soothe and relax the reader. They are lovely, gentle, slow-paced, and remind you that there is still goodness in the world.

  16. Reka

    A book that always helps me during hard times (or even during overly long winters) is My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The blend of humor, escapism, and real reverence for animals and the natural world cheer me every time.

  17. Máire

    My sympathies to you and your friends. As for my great escapes, I’ve often turned to (and in turn recommended when friends have been in need) Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. I have my personal and a lender copy of Dangerous Angels and a well-loved copy of Necklace of Kisses. The magical realism that imbues the pages has been a respite so many times over. Weetzie’s world isn’t without pain, but it’s the hope and love that wins out in the end. Plus, with names like Weetzie, Duck, Fifi and Secret Agent Lover Man, how can one not smile? And another recent escape has been Christian Burch’s Manny Files books. They’re quick reads but also make my heart feel lighter.

  18. Sarah

    I’m so sorry for your friends. I still remember very clearly, years ago, when I was battling through a deep depression, I picked up a hardcover copy of Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise at the Dartmouth Coop. I found much solace in Kenyon’s poetry. Her battles with depression and mortality resonated, and helped pull me out of the darkness.

  19. Jackie Morris

    I have the Staying Alive poetry book and it is a wonderful one to dip int and out of to find islands of peace through busy days. The most amazing books that have taken me out of this world and into another though are the books of Robin Hobb, The Farseer, Liveships and the Fool trilogies. All big books but when you start to read them they take you right out of this world and away. I haven’t had such a reading experience since I was a child. Beware the covers though, especialy in America, and for those who say “I never read fantasy” put aside your prejudices and wrap the book in brown paper and travel into a place of dragons. Other than that I love to loose myself in picture books. Not the trendy ones that seem to fill bookshops these days, but the beautiful, lyrical ones. The Snow Goose illustrated by Angela Barrett dosn’t escape the subject of death, but sometimes it is good to have books that help us to find that space to cry in.


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