The world, it seems reasonable to assume, is fucked. Between climate change, the revocation of nuclear arms deals left and right, and the fact that an increasing number of the world’s most powerful governments are being run by greedy cryptofascist dullards, it seems like we’re moving in a dark direction as a species. It would be easy to fall into despair, to grow helpless.
This, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is unnecessary. But perky web articles and cute, “Hang in there buddy!” memes aren’t really going to keep you going. To stay clear-eyed and full-hearted over the next few decades of your life, you’re going to need to build a coherent worldview, and you can’t cobble that sort of thing together with short-form pick-me-ups. To do that, you need books, and you need art.
I do not claim to be an expert, but I have managed to pull myself out of a depression over the past couple of years, and I have started viewing the world a bit differently as a result of it. This, in large part, has been because of key books I’ve read. So here is one man’s reading list for fighting despair in dark times.
British writer John Higgs’ 2015 masterpiece is billed as “an alternative history of the 20th century.” Britain, at the beginning of the 20th century, could reasonably have been considered the center of the world. To a Brit in 1901, the world made sense.
Then relativity and quantum mechanics changed everything we thought we knew about science. Modernism, surrealism, and dada pulled the rug out from under art. Totalitarianism rose, wars became potentially world-ending, we started launching men into space, our economy grew so fast it threatened to consume the earth, and we became so interconnected that we could see what was happening on other continents in real time. In the midst of all of this, Britain stopped being the center of the world. Its Empire was gone a mere half century after its peak.
This unmooring of everything in the 20th century that had been real and certain before 1901 was (and is) baffling and traumatic for many people. But Higgs offers a new way of thinking about it, a way that may help us start to understand where we now are. America, the most powerful nation in the world in 2001, and now a mere 18 years later indisputably in decline, could learn a thing or two from Higgs and the Brits.
This is a beautifully written book detailing 25 lessons we can learn from the history of nonviolence. It explains how “turn the other cheek” was actually a statement of civil disobedience in biblical times, it explains how Gandhi believed that, if you must choose between violence and doing nothing to change things, you must choose violence, it goes into Martin Luther King’s perceived radicalism in the United States in the 60’s (and why people claiming MLK would have “done things differently” from activists now is complete and utter garbage), and it goes into how the Cold War was ended not by Ronald Reagan shaking his fist at the Berlin Wall, but by thousands of dissidents working tirelessly over the course of decades.
Politics can seem impenetrable to common people a lot of the time, but Kurlansky’s book shows that creative nonviolent efforts undertaken by ordinary people have changed things for the better again and again over the course of history. Violence may be inescapable in this world, but we can choose to reject it.
This is the best possible follow-up reading to Kurlansky’s Nonviolence. In it, Chenoweth and Stephan detail why it is nonviolence is so effective. They went through every major resistance campaign of the 20th century, and found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent campaigns.
There are a few reasons for this: First, if you run a nonviolent campaign, you are likely to get more people to join than a violent campaign. Second, it is easier for a regime to oppose a violent campaign than it is a nonviolent one: armed rebels can be fought and executed, peacefully protesting civilians are much harder to shoot on (not impossible to shoot on, as history sadly shows us, but the blowback from murdering innocent people is pretty steep). And finally, when nonviolent campaigns win, they tend to transition to more peaceful and less authoritarian forms of government.
This book is packed with practical lessons for dissidents, and with justifications for changing things peacefully. As it turns out, you don’t need guns to change things. You just need to make it so things staying the same is more expensive for the rich and powerful than it is for them to change.
Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book was written in response to the invasion of Iraq and the reelection of George W. Bush, a pretty bleak time in American politics. Now, 15 years later, it is essential reading. Solnit, like Kurlansky, is excellent at providing an alternative view of history and offers a glimpse of the path forward. In it, she quotes Czech poet and dissident Vaclav Havel, who, when he wrote this in 1985, was in prison.
“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Four years after writing this, Havel was no longer in jail. He was, in fact, the President of Czechoslovakia. Things change.
Science books are essential for staying curious in dark times, because they remind us how fucking weird the universe is. Rovelli’s 2017 book The Order of Time explains what quantum physicists now know to be the case about time: basically, everything we think about it is wrong. It is not the linear, machine-like thing we imagine it to be as we watch the hands of the clock tick through the day. In fact, only a single equation in physics references its existence. The way we see it moving has more to do with our perception than it has to do with the nature of time itself.
Rovelli is a brilliant science writer, on the same level as Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this book is essential for fighting despair because it’s hard to feel hopeless at the state of the world when you realize you don’t understand a fucking thing about it. Nothing beats fear like curiosity, and nothing pulls you out of despair quicker than wonder.
Kurt Vonnegut is the all-time master of compassionate humanism. Slaughterhouse-Five is an extremely dark book (it’s about World War II and the firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut was present for as a Prisoner of War), but it manages to also be an incredibly humane story that will, if nothing else, make you feel a little bit gentler towards other humans.
Like The Order of Time and Jerusalem (also on this list), it will have you thinking about how time works, and if we maybe don’t really understand any of this at all.
If that’s the case, then we’re all mucking about down here. None of us really know what we’re doing, the universe is a mystery, and death comes to us all. So it goes.
This remains the most rewarding thing I’ve ever read, but I don’t recommend it to many people, because it is nearly 1200 pages long. Alan Moore is best known for his comics V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and From Hell, but this 2016 book is his magnum opus.
It takes place in Northampton, England, Moore’s hometown, and it jumps around in history, from the 19th century to the end of the universe. Chapters are written from the perspective of Moore’s family members, the daughter of James Joyce, Charlie Chaplin, and the Archangel Michael, among others. Some chapters are written as poems, others as plays, others as pulp fiction. About 400 pages of the book take place over the 10 minutes it takes for a 2-year-old boy to choke on a cough drop (and they are a staggeringly good 400 pages).
The book makes this list in particular because of its sprawling, original vision of life and the afterlife. If you, like me, have abandoned the idea of a heaven and hell, if you do not see any paradise beyond your death or human extinction, then Moore offers a wild, surreal alternative that will make you rethink the world and your place in it. It is a spectacular piece of writing, and incredibly fun to read, if you don’t mind taking a couple of months to get through it.
Daytripper is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, and you can finish it in an afternoon. It is a comic book written by twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and it covers the life of Bras de Oliva Domingos, a Brazilian obituary writer. Each day covered in the book is an important day in his life, and at the end of each of these days, he dies.
It is a beautiful meditation on life and death. It is one of those books where you finish it and just sit quietly with it for a few minutes.
We tend to organize our lives around these big moments, but it is the small ones that end up defining us.
The Cold War inevitably gave rise to a lot of excellent post-apocalyptic literature, but A Canticle for Liebowitz stands out as one of the most striking and one of the most hopeful for a society on the brink of a different type of cataclysm. The plot is simple: After a nuclear war between Russia and the US, the survivors go around burning all books and murdering intellectuals and academics, claiming (perhaps not unreasonably) that it was knowledge that brought us to this point.
A Jewish Engineer named Liebowitz working at an army base begins smuggling books containing the entirety of man’s scientific knowledge out to a nearby Catholic abbey in the desert. They are entrusted with keeping this information quietly, to return it back into mankind’s hands when we’ve finally learned our lessons. The book follows the abbey over the course of the next 1700 years.
The book is a thrilling one for us to read now because it imagines life beyond a disaster, and it depicts morality as something that must always be grappled with, regardless of the technology at our disposal.
Steinbeck’s magnum opus isn’t The Grapes of Wrath — it’s East of Eden. It is in one sense a retelling of the book of Genesis, but set in Steinbeck’s home, the Salinas Valley. The question at the core of the book is an eternal one: are we fated to be good or evil? Or do we have a choice?
It’s a staggeringly good book, with one of the greatest villains in literature, and with central characters who were actual family members of Steinbeck’s.
The conversation at the core of the book came from Steinbeck’s mistranslation of a Hebrew Bible, but it won’t matter, you’ll want to tattoo “Timshel” onto your wrist at the end anyway.
Set aside the 12 years that have passed since the seventh book came out. Set aside J.K. Rowling’s need to constantly modify her books to make them more “woke” after the fact, set aside that she can be kinda shitty on Twitter, set aside that every new movie feels increasingly like a cynical cash grab, and just take the first seven books on their face.
They are amazing guidebooks for people (especially young people) going through tough times. I re-read all seven after Trump’s election, and they worked incredibly well as a pick-me-up.
Separating the art from the artist is probably a fool’s errand, but a flawed person can certainly write some brilliant stories.
Something missing that helped you through dark times? Should I have done His Dark Materials instead of Harry Potter? I totally should have, right? Well this is a living document. Let me know your favorite with a sentence or two explaining why and I’ll add it to the list. I’ll also take poetry and music.