10 Books That Could Save Your Life

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This week marked the release of Reality Hunger author David Shields’ newest book, How Literature Saved My Life, a wonderfully meandering meditation on reading, writing, and the reason for art. Shields is very well read (as one might assume), and part of the pleasure of reading this book is watching him pick apart his favorite writing and piece it back together, perhaps in a different way than originally intended. On the occasion of the book’s publication, we offer ten books that just might save your life — some of which Shields mentioned in his latest, some of which are our own favorites. Of course, every life is different, and the books that seem revolutionary to us may have just come at the right moment, or in the right color. So if we’ve missed your lifesaver here, do tell us all about it in the comments.

Leaving the Atocha Station , Ben Lerner

Shields starts off his book with a discussion of this novel, in part because, as he writes he is “obsessed with [Lerner] as my doppelgänger of the next generation, my aesthetic spawn.” Indeed, we’ve often found ourselves at a loss to explain why this book is so wonderful — probably because whenever we start with “a young guy goes abroad and begins investigating himself and his art, or lack thereof” eyeballs start rolling all over the place. Shields gets it: the book “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling” (a phrase originally used to describe one of Shields’ books). So if you too cannot ever get out of your own head, this book probably won’t give you any solace, but it might give you some company.

Out of Sheer Rage , Geoff Dyer

As Shields describes it, Dyer’s book about not writing a biography of D.H. Lawrence is “a thinking person’s self-help book: how to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional.” The answer: “the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.” That is, keep on, because what else will you do?

Smoke and Mirrors , Neil Gaiman

We’re true believers in the idea that fantasy can transform you as well as any of its storied magicians — after all, so very many readers and thinkers got started on the printed stuff by way of fantasy: certainly a life saver, or at the very least changer, that. Gaiman is always a good bet, whether you’re looking for a gateway drug or your addiction is old hat, but this book in particular, a selection of short fictions, was recently picked out by the UK’s Society of Chief Librarians and the nonprofit Reading Agency as one of the mood-boosting books that they think could mitigate some people’s need for actual prescription drugs. “It is hoped those with ‘mild to moderate’ mental health conditions will try out the idea before turning to prescription drugs — many of which can have unpleasant side effects,” The Daily Mail explains. We can’t advocate skipping out on your medicine, but we can advocate reading this book.

The Trial , Franz Kafka

But what about the opposite? As The Telegraph recently pointed out, it’s not only feel-good books that could be used to mediate your moods. For our part, we think everyone should incorporate a healthy dose of Kafka’s bleak skepticism and paranoia into their lives — it might just keep you from making a huge naïve mistake in the future. That would be some literal literary life saving.

Dangerous Angels , Francesca Lia Block

Let’s get real: the time when most of us need the most saving is when we’re teenagers, floundering about in the high school shallows, wondering what to make of our own brains and bodies as they spark and flail before us. For the aggressively or just accidentally strange teenager, we recommend Francesca Lia Block’s weird and wonderful Weetzie Bat books, which are about growing up, love in its many varieties and accepting the inherent pain of life. It’s like a more surreal Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a YA series, if that helps.

Consider the Lobster , David Foster Wallace

We were tempted to put Infinite Jest here, we admit, and we do believe that that novel has the potential to save lives — whether because it might tear you away from your TV screen (both emotionally and in terms of time spent), or because it will make you feel a little less alone in the world or just because the thing can probably stop a bullet. But, that said, we’re going to go with Wallace’s essays, because they sparkle with a truth deeper than their attendant facts, but even more because of their ability to recalibrate the way the reader thinks about the world.

Nine Stories , J.D. Salinger

No, Catcher is not getting on this list. But Salinger is, via our favorite of his works, the luminous Nine Stories, which is another of those books that seem transcendental, earth-shattering, incredible to a teenage reader — finally, someone understands me! — but that, unlike many peers in its categories, can have the same effect on an adult reader. So if your teenage years are gone, but you still need an author to take you in hand, trust Mr. Salinger. The man knows what he’s doing.

Wild , Cheryl Strayed

We’ve talked a lot about this book in this space, and with (we think) good reason. This affecting memoir of a 26-year-old woman hiking alone through the wilderness for three months, working through her grief and toward self-actualization inspired us to take a firm hold on our own lives. Which might just save them. Also in the category of travelogues that might send you on a life-saving journey: W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson , Emily Dickinson

Look, we understand that putting Emily Dickinson on a list like this might seem like a boring choice. But the woman was a genius, wrapping so much into these tight little packages, many of which we think have still not been suitably unwrapped. Like Sylvia Plath, she is the patron saint of many a confused, solitary young woman (and many a well-adjusted one too, for that matter), and her tight, ropy poems have been known to pull more than one up out of the darkness.

How Literature Saved My Life , David Shields

Shields has a very particular view of contemporary literature and what it should be, and though we don’t always agree with him, we can’t help but devour his ideas. We’re still stewing on this book, which meditates on the edges of fiction and where they blend in with real life, the function of language and its ability to connect or disconnect us (mostly the latter, however much it tries), and Shields’ experience with writing and reading. If nothing else, he puts together a killer reading list for the curious mind. And that could save your life all on its own.