The title of The Los Angeles Times article, “Soothe psyche with a good book,” says exactly what I figured out when I was a teenager. One of the coping mechanisms I learned (thankfully) was the vital importance of always having a good book standing by next to my bed. I knew by then that books were as much a tonic as they were entertainment. I knew they had a magical way of helping soothe my fears, loneliness, and anxieties. When I was going through surgery for breast cancer three years ago, the book that got me through it all was My Life in France, Julia Child’s autobiography, which she wrote with her grand-nephew during the last eight months of her life. I purposely read the book slowly, five or six pages each night, so that I could count on Julia’s warm, frank voice to be with me the entire way.
Hector Tobar, the writer of the Times article, cites research that “stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” The list of 27 books that the U.K.’s Society of Chief Librarians and the nonprofit Reading Agency have come up with to “make you feel better” (see readingagency.org.uk/adults/tips/mood-boosting-books-2012-list.html) are not self-help books, but “works of fiction, history and memoir that have strong literary qualities and that are especially hopeful in their portrayal of the human condition.”
The Los Angeles Times article includes mention of one of Natalie’s and my favorite book discoveries we made during our Applewood School years: E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Indeed, each member of our family now owns a copy. Three copies of one book in our house! I think it’s the only book to make such a claim. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I sometimes use sticky tabs to mark sections of a book that I want to revisit. In my copy of Gombrich’s treasure of a book, I placed a tab on the last paragraph in the book, which includes his final thoughts. Upon re-reading them, I notice the honest and reassuring tone. When I was a teenager, those two elements of communication — honesty and reassurance — told me I could trust the communicator.
Here’s Gombrich’s last paragraph:
“I ended my account of the First World War with the words: ‘We all hope for a better future, it must be better.’ Has such a future come? For many of the people who live on our earth, it is still remote. Among the constantly growing populations of Asia, Africa and South America the same misery reigns that, until not so long ago, was accepted as normal in our countries as well. We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand. And yet improvements in sending information have made the consciences of richer nations a little more attentive. Whenever an earthquake, a flood or drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.”
Poetry can also be a tonic to the soul. Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem “The Years” never fails to reassure me. Life is always changing. If you look carefully, you’ll notice the colors, the stories, and the passage of time. Look around your home. Is there something you’ve had for a long time that reminds you that your life is a story?
The years come all colors
like the rags
in the rag-basket my great-aunt
made her round rugs from,
circling the strips of calico,
polkadot, roman stripe, solid and paisley
round one another, braided
together, so that I walk on them
sixty years later,
those circles of faded color.