Fiction that Gives You a Lift

I was recently asked by a friend which types of books one should read during a depression. Before I could say “Self-help”, he said he was asking which types of fiction books one should read.


I love Dickens, but a few chapters of “Bleak House” or “Hard Times” is no way to feel better about life.

I saw what he meant. Unfortunately, much fiction is morose in nature. Let’s start with the big names in literature. Dickens, after his first few novels (mainly The Pickwick Papers), became increasingly lugubrious, as did his Victorian contemporaries. And then came the 20th century, with writers disillusioned after World War I. Add to that the literature which emerged after the Second World War – dystopian novels such as 1984 and Brave New World, novels of alienation like The Catcher in the Rye, the dismal postmodernism of Pynchon and his ilk – and rapidly one finds that fiction, or at least literary fiction, doesn’t have a tendency to be uplifting. The novels of Jane Austen are positive, but they don’t constitute a bookshelf.


Leaving literary fiction aside, let’s look at the other genres. Mystery novels are full of murder and other crimes – not something I recommend to someone suffering from depression. Romance novels are clearly not for everyone, and the horror genre is likely to make one feel worse. Nightmares and fear of going to sleep are the last thing that a depressive needs.


J.R.R. Tolkien

Fortunately, there is one popular genre which has plenty of positive entries: the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre. I would particularly emphasize the Fantasy segment. This would include books such as The Lord of the Rings and even the Harry Potter books, as well as Terry Pratchett’s novels.


Why is this? To begin, the Fantasy genre contains a huge element of escapism: kings, warriors, sorcerers, generally living in a faraway land. Jumping into a fantasy book takes us away from the worries of the present. Few of the characters share the day-to-day worries that we have here on Earth, such as paying bills and saving for our retirement.




Second, these novels feature heroic elements: a good king overcoming a dragon, good vs. evil, a banished prince gaining back his throne. In that sense, they are empowering, as we follow the young prince or peasant on his path to a better future. Think of Star Wars and Luke’s heroic path to destroying the Empire. Many works of myth and fantasy follow a similar pattern, as can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Third, and connected to point two, these stories contain common and even basic themes, which allow the reader to focus. I have often said that one of the toughest aspects of depression is the inability to focus, and depressives often find themselves unmoored and unstable. Focus provides traction. And a story with a basic, or even binary, theme, such as overthrowing an evil king, provides the simplicity that is so essential to recovery from depression and control of anxiety.


Lastly, what’s very uplifting about these novels is that the good guys almost always win. They may not win in the first book in the series, but ultimately they generally triumph.

Here’s some sites that offer suggestions for specific books to read:



One final note, however: Never rely on escapism as a solution to your depression problem. Reading fantasy fiction is better than reading a depressing Dickens novel, but escapism is not a cure for depression. Your depression problem needs to be met head-on, with self-help books that I’ve recommended before, such as Tolle’s The Power of Now and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Nonetheless, for when you want a diversion, feel free to enter the worlds of high adventure and legend, to a simpler and less stressful time.


By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.

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