Reading During Hard Times

“Live in the books for a while, learn from them what seems to be worth learning, but above all love them.” 


Rainer Maria Rilke 


“It felt good today to put a thousand years between me and the 20th century,” said Winston Churchill, when World War II was just breaking out. He was reading history books as a way to calm himself down, to gain some perspective amidst all the panic and chaos. 

When you’re going through hard times — whether it’s grieving a loss, or feeling uninspired, going through a depression, or experiencing a debilitating event of a larger scale like an economic recession or a pandemic — it helps to turn to books as a healthy coping mechanism, picking them up as a source of comfort and calmness. 

It’s better than turning on the news or anything of a similar nature that really only lock you down into the present moment as it feeds on your anxiety. We wouldn’t be interested in news unless the headlines are attention-grabbing — and that’s a huge portion of what they really are, because otherwise journalists could easily lose their jobs — they’re just supersizing on certain issues to make you reactive and think less. 

As Ray Bradbury wrote in “Fahrenheit 451”, “The televisor is ‘real’. It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’ “

Books however — especially the older ones — speak from an accumulation of decades and even centuries of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. They remind us that while we live in different times than the authors of those books, little has changed from their time to ours. Wars happen. Pandemics break out. Tribulations go on in our personal lives. Books remind us on what’s worth being overwhelmed about, and most importantly, they remind us that everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end — that eventually, things do get better, and everything’s going to be okay.

You don’t get to learn as much from immediate experience, as it could easily be myopic or too intertwined with current emotions.  It’s different from taking a far look back at past events, when those emotions have subsided and you could see more clearly. Echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “The years teach much which the days never know.” It’s only when you have a bird’s eye view on events, that you get to better come to terms with everything as being a perennial and unchanging part of life. And by learning from the past experiences from others, books help you see that.

And best of all, books are always available for us to learn from. Only it’s up to us to seize that opportunity, so that we don’t make the same mistakes and could live fuller, happier lives. 

To quote a passage from “Fahrenheit 451” again, “We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.”

So if you’re concerned about the economy right now, try not read the Wall Street Journal as much as history books or biographies of great businessmen like John D. Rockefeller and Sam Zemurray, who made their fortune in spite of the economic strains.

If you’re interested in war, try picking up Thucydides’s  “The History of the Peloponnesian War”, because you could see that war has always been fought for the same reasons, especially primitive impulses such as pride and greed. 

If you’ve just experienced a loss, try reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B” or Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”, because they are a great help in finding your balance again. 

Fiction books can be a tremendous resource too — And I’m not necessarily talking about “serious” novels and plays per se. I’ve found just as much value from reading “Lord of the Rings” and going through my scribbled notes when I’m facing a hardship — not only because it’s fun, but because it’s really a tale of courage and resiliency. Young Frodo might not have chosen Sauron’s return, to be the ring-bearer and trudge on the fiery terrains of Mordor, but he makes the most of it anyhow, so that he could be of great service to other people. 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Pick up a book whenever you’re feeling down. Read them, re-read them. Write your thoughts in them, mark your favorite passages for you to revisit and keep close to heart. And if you can’t do that for whatever reason, at least have them within your reach — know that they’re there for you, if you ever feel the need to turn to them. 

In Churchill’s words, “If you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”

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