Why books can save your life, or: how books have saved mine

Hi there, can I talk to you on something rather heart-crushing today? I have to remind myself that I’ve made progress and that I’m doing my best. Last week was a tough week for a lot of people, just as tough as any other week I presume. Kate Spade, the little sister of our queen (of the Netherlands) and Anthony Bourdain took their own life last week. I do not know these people personally. Yet, it was yet another heartbreaking reminder that things like money, success, fame, and opportunity do not change what is happening in your head. A reminder that we need to take care of our mind, just as much as our body. We need to throw out the “what do you have to be depressed about” mindset in ourselves and our society.

Hear me out, I do not want to talk about mental illness right now. I never want to glorify mental illness. I never want to tone down the severity of mental illness. And I do not want to explain more about my own mental state in this post. Right now I am not quite sure how to put into words how I feel about this personally. Heck, I feel like there is hardly any need for me to add words to all this so maybe I shouldn’t. But I hope the grim public stories remind you that there are so many more sad stories that don’t make the headlines. Please, please, please (!) be kind to yourself and the people around you. Be watchful of those you love, including yourself. You never know what people are going through.

That being said, I do really want to talk about doing the things that make you feel alive, and like you’re in touch with yourself — in a really good sense. I want to discuss that when whatever is getting to you… there’s ways to deal. Even though you don’t feel like that. For me, a big one (next to therapy, medication and thoughtful friends and family members) was books. Oh books! Glorious, glorious books!!

One of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami, wrote in Norwegian Wood this wonderful thing about books that I would like to believe to be true: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” This is neither good nor bad, just something to keep in mind I think. Books influence the mind and your being. I always liked the idea to fill my mind with beautiful thoughts, in the hopes that I could live a beautiful life. Now that I’ve grown older, I have learned that this is not quite how it works. But in whatever way life can make your heart ache, a good book is as close as pure magic.

Sure, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that solely books saved my life. But I have become aware that seeking knowledge, and allowing yourself to find it — was an extremely big feat to me when I was in the heat of the battle of my own mental state. Honestly craving other people thoughts, experiences, dreams and stories made me aware how I could become and feel like more of myself again. It made me think other thoughts than the destructive spiral I was going through.

Books to me are a window to someone else’s soul. This analogy might not work as I don’t really knock on anybodies door — but hear me out.  Books are like houses, where you knock on the door (and if it’s a good book at the right time) — you’ll have a wonderful time in that house. Sometimes you have to re-visit the house because the tenant wasn’t home at the time and it didn’t feel quite right. Sometimes you have to walk past a house where there’s a house party and you find that the house is a bit too crowded and too popular for you to feel at home.

Does that sound weird to you? Sure, let me explain more rationally and, well… to the point? Reading books helps you expand your knowledge, it’s a workout for your mind, improves focus and vocabulary — and usually it’s also a great de-stressor so you might find that you fall asleep more easily or let yourself be a little more creative. Or if all else fails: when reality gets too irritating or overwhelming, there’s nothing like slipping into a fictional world to get away from it all for a little while (f-yeah escapism!). You get the opportunity to imagine everything in your own way and grow empathy for the protagonist, who probably has some hefty battles to face too. Now the sort of book you’ll want to read, is also what changes from one person to another. I myself couldn’t stand just any book. Still, I can’t.

I think that books are sometimes like ideas. You have to have the right timing for it to work out. So if instead of some sci-fi fiction you now feel utterly compelled to read a collection of short stories about cats: you do you. Allow yourself that simple pleasure of reading what you like, what compels you. Maybe, sure, maybe books aren’t for you right now or next month or whenever. But even then, allow yourself to find and do that which you know will help.

Expanding my knowledge on subjects that interest me, especially philosophy, is broadening my perspective and helps untangle the mess in my mind. It helps me with finding answers for the questions that are plaguing my mind. Heck not only does it help with finding answers but it also helps me formulate them for myself. Sure, maybe I made things a lot harder for myself… but I’m here. I’m functioning again. I work, even though yes it’s part-time. I’m not done, and I still have a long way to go. But I’m here.

I’m so so so sorry if any of this has triggered you, made you feel less than or had an negative impact on you. Even though I try very hard to see and understand the perspectives of other people, I can only write from my own. If there is anything you disagree with, please let me know.