“We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”
David Foster Wallace
I didn’t really know what depression actually felt like until the last year or so. It was then that I started suffering from it in a way that was just as obvious as my previous bouts of anxiety and PTSD, both of which I had a lot of therapy for about a decade ago.
In Your Life in Bloom, the book I wrote in the midst of my depressive period during Covid-19, I wrote: “Depression doesn’t always look like sadness. For me it’s an emptiness that drains the joy but also the sadness until there’s nothing left but a cold sorrow. It’s detachment from the world and the good things to come. It’s exhaustion at the present and the future. It’s a lack of faith that I can find the energy to get through it.”
My own way out of this required time, a lot of gentle kindness, and eventually being able to change my environment. I also accepted that I’d likely feel depressed again at some point, so I wanted to find some self-help tools I could turn to in the future.
One strategy to help heal my depression was, of course, reading – or bibliotherapy. I’ve found that there are six good types of books to read for depression (click the links to jump to my book recommendations):
Let’s look at some of the best books for depression under these categories, which you can pick and choose from based on how you’re feeling.
The best books to read when you’re depressed
The best books about depression for self-help
1. The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb, PhD
Rather than falling into a downward spiral, what about an upward spiral? Depression isn’t something that you can just pull yourself out of and deal with. But as neuroscientist Alex Korb explores in The Upward Spiral, you can gradually try and do more things to take the best care of yourself.
This self-help book for depression offers a starting point with actionable and neuroscience-backed strategies to help you reshape your brain and create an upward spiral towards a happier, healthier life.
To get the most from The Upward Spiral, there’s also a fantastic companion workbook and even a card deck of 52 ways to rewire your brain and reverse the course of depression, one small change at a time.
2. Feeling Great: The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety by David D. Burns
In Feeling Great, Dr. David Burns shares how our negative thoughts don’t result from what’s wrong with us, but rather what’s right with us. Our minds are trying to tell us something, and our job is to listen. Only then can we realise that we don’t need most of these negative thoughts anymore.
This is Dr. Burns’s fast-track way to help you start working through your depression yourself (or accompanied by a psychologist or other professional). It also goes beyond this, though, and shows you how to find your way back to joy.
3. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Reasons to Stay Alive is one of the best books about depression from the last decade – and one of the most popular too. It’s Matt Haig’s story of depression, written with the trademark honesty and vulnerability that he’s become so well-known for in the last few years.
It’s packed with memorable takeaways to revisit on the most difficult days, including a reminder that, with time, the light will come back into your life.
4. The Illustrated Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris counters the idea that we’re always supposed to be happy… which is, quite frankly, making us all miserable. I love this illustrated edition that makes the book even more accessible and easy to digest.
In this self-help book for depression, Harris shows you how to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as a simple, self-administered therapy based on mindfulness to start living more fully, reduce stress, and treasure the range of emotions that make up a satisfying life.
The best feel-good fiction for depression
If you want to add more uplifting books to your reading list, you might also like my recommendations for the best feel-good books of all time.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
When I think of feel-good books, I can’t help but think of Pride and Prejudice… it’s simply one of the most uplifting classics ever written. Whether you’re reading it for the first or the fifth time, tumble into Jane Austen’s world of dances, ribbons, country houses, and the blossoming of romance. This beautiful edition is published by Ballard Classics.
6. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden is another of the best feel-good books you can read for depression. When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s grand house on the Yorkshire Moors, she is spooked by the secrets and noises in the mansion’s nearly one hundred rooms.
The gardens surrounding the property are Mary’s only escape, and when she discovers a secret garden enclosed by walls and locked with a missing key – as well as two unexpected companions – she becomes determined to bring it back to life.
Reddit user Back2Bach recommends The Secret Garden for “an uplifting story for both young readers and adults that takes the person on a journey from darkness into light”.
7. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
In a thread about books for hope when you’re feeling depressed, Reddit user sept_douleurs shared: “As silly as it seems, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett has been my go-to book whenever I’m in a rough spot for going on seven years now. It’s fun and easy to read and makes me feel like if the characters in the story can take the Apocalypse in stride and with humor, I can handle whatever less-Apocalyptic troubles I’m having.”
Good Omens combines the laugh-out-loud humour of Pratchett and the gravity and dark humour of Gaiman for a wonderfully inventive take on the apocalypse.
Books about the beauty of life
For more books like this, you might like my post on the most beautifully written books of all time, featuring stunning books from Virginia Woolf to Mary Oliver.
8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This book will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and make you feel everything. A heartbreaking yet beautiful book, all of the friends to whom I’ve gifted a copy of All Thing Light We Cannot See have loved it.
It’s the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. I really hope you find it as memorable and well-crafted as I did.
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
All the Light We Cannot See
9. How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver
These poems by Barbara Kingsolver – the author of Prodigal Summer, one of my all-time favourite books about a single summer in the Appalachians – are a map of the human experience. But most of all, they’re about transcendence: of finding lightness and freedom in the everyday acts of living.
As the book’s title suggests, these are lessons for a lifetime that we’re never really done with. But we can open up this collection to a random page every so often for a dose of wisdom, and that’s a good start.
10. Your Life in Bloom by Lucy Fuggle
Your Life in Bloom is the book I wrote during my bout of depression, compiled of musings on re-discovering my strength, courage, and direction forwards, supported by the natural world around me.
“Commit to falling in love with the good in the world. Stop to notice the beauty in all things. And with time, but no rush, remember how you are just another part of the universe, just like the birds, trees, mosses, and animals that warm your heart.”
Books that are actually depressing themselves
11. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Reading Russian literature isn’t exactly a bundle of joy, but that’s not really the point. Nor does it mean that it isn’t fantastic reading. Dostoevsky is a great place to start if you’re looking for a depressing book that might actually make you feel better, especially Notes from Underground, a short and very grumpy book.
The unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky’s most revolutionary novel is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence to scrawl an angry, obsessive, and often self-contradictory attack on social utopianism.
12. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Can things get much worse than it is in The Road? This story about a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world is dark and looming from page one.
Definitely don’t read The Road for butterflies, sunshine, and hope. But it is a good book to show you that there is a wide spectrum of emotions and situations in life… The Road is just firmly at one end of this.
13. The Terror by Dan Simmons
In a thread about the point of depressing books, Reddit user bibliophile222 writes: “I find that depressing books provide weirdly satisfying escapism because they make my own life seem fantastic in comparison. I’ve been reading The Terror, about an arctic expedition in the 1840s, and I’ve been so happy while reading it because I’m not in brutal cold, dying of scurvy and starvation, and having a demon polar bear stalking me. Life is good and I have plenty of Vitamin C.”
Books to binge-read and escape into
You might also like my selection of the best can’t-put-down books to binge-read instead of watching Netflix.
14. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Over the last year, I binge-read every single one of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novels. I listened to the excellent audiobook edition (featuring a whole cast of voice actors) of Daisy Jones & the Six and flew through it in a couple of days. Walking around the park, cooking dinner, tidying the house… I was always listening to it.
15. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo is an unlikely contender for a binge-worthy book. For one, it was originally published in 1846. Secondly, the Penguin paperback is 1276 pages long. But it’s so, so good. This book achieved the same gripping themes of wrongful imprisonment and justice as Shawshank Redemption but 150 years earlier.
Reddit user Mammoth-Corner shares my thoughts in this comment: “Monte Cristo is ridiculously good. I put the audiobook on while I was taking a walk and wound up going in loops for two hours because I didn’t want to go back inside and turn it off.”
Enjoy more from me