Therapeutic reading: Lessons, wisdom, and solace in good books

Over the years, I’ve spent time with four memoirs by authors who, as adult learners, devoted concentrated periods of time to reading great works of literature. Two went back to school and studied with college students a fraction of their respective ages. Two others embarked upon on courses of self-directed study.

Interestingly, personal crises drew each of them to this commitment to intensive reading. The youngest reached what might be called a “quarter life” crisis. Another experienced a classic midlife crisis. One survived cancer, and another lost a sister to it.

Here are short descriptions of each:

Christopher R. Beha, The Whole Five Feet (2009) — A 20-something writer, struggling to find his place in the world and dealing with the serious illness of a dear family member, decided to spend a year reading through the Harvard Classics, the celebrated, century-old set of great books that for decades offered a do-it-yourself liberal arts education to America’s emerging middle class. (Those who don’t want to buy or borrow a hard copy set can access the books for free online, here.)

David Denby, Great Books (1996) — A well-known New York City film critic and journalist ran smack dab into a midlife crisis and returned to Columbia University’s first-year Western Civilization program.

Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (2008) — After surviving an often fatal form of cancer, this college president spent a semester at St. John’s College, studying ancient Greek literature and joining the rowing team.

Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (2010) — Reeling from the death of her sister, the author resolved to read 365 books in a year. She maintained a blog throughout that year (here), and the New York Times reported her personal project (here).

Quick impressions

Beha, easily the youngest of the memoirists, struck me as being the most comfortable with himself and the least posturing in his responses to the books he encountered.

Denby brought his eyes and ears as a journalist to his journey, and he blended observations about the current relevance of the Western canon with his experiences as a returning student.

Martin may have stared down cancer and won, yet he seemed the most self-conscious during his back-to-college experience, constantly reminding us of his position as a college president and expressing frequent mortification at his inability to keep up with the young folks on the rowing team.

Sankovitch’s grief over losing her sister made hers the most emotionally gripping work of the four, and her book selections were easily the most eclectic and contemporary among the group.

Each writer proclaimed his or her endeavor a success, not surprising given that books of this nature would be a drag to read had they concluded otherwise. For what it’s worth, I found the time spent with these books to be a worthwhile investment.

But why?

And yet, at the end of the day, I’m still pulled back to the authors’ original motivations: What is it about good books that make them such a therapeutic draw? Is there something so fundamental about timeless stories and ideas contained in these works that we seek them out as a healing response to personal crises?

I’m not sure that these memoirs gave me direct answers to those questions, but it’s easy to infer that quality books help to bring us back to core values, beliefs, and questions. In that sense they dovetail with significant personal challenges or losses, meeting at the point of our very foundations as human beings.

Our society would benefit greatly if adults had more opportunities to read, discuss, and reflect upon good books of all shapes and sizes — and not just the “classics” as traditionally defined.

After all, in addition to confronting the personal challenges that we face in our everyday lives, we’re navigating through difficult times and staring at a potentially long period of economic turmoil and scarcity. What better moment to read something that helps us to sort through the messiness of life?

-David Yamada



For independent learners who seek guidance on plotting out a personal course of reading, here are some resources:

Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2003) — Recommendations for a personal course of study. For serious independent learners.

Elizabeth Diefendorf and Diana Bryan, The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (1997) — An excellent option for those seeking contemporary alternatives to the ancient Greek classics!

Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan (1999) — Last updated edition of a popular guidebook to great literature, including works of the 20th century.

The Great Books Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to public discussion of great books and ideas.

The Project on Civic Reflection “helps civic groups build capacity, commitment and community through reading and discussion,” by engaging people in the discussion of “short readings—poems, stories, essays, scripture—as a means of reflecting on basic questions at the heart of their giving, service and leadership.”

The Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company — Some 350 video and audio courses, heavily weighted toward liberal arts subjects and including many offerings on great works of literature, available for purchase. (Wait for their frequent sales, which over a year will cover their entire catalog.)

Comments (2)

TerryJuly 29th, 2012 at 4:36 am

Great post, David. Interesting questions. I have read only one of the books you mention, and enjoyed it very much. Now I am inspired to keep going! Thank you. Terry

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David YamadaJuly 30th, 2012 at 12:43 am

Terry, thank you, I’m glad the post gave you some additional reading suggestions!

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