Jean-Paul Sartre

Books against Sadness […and Loss, and Grief]: Personal Book Recommendations


„I’ve been in an emotionally fragile state for a couple months. I’m looking for some literature that will help me be happy with existing again. What do you recommend?“

Books That Will Help Me Grapple With Existence? [a recent discussion in the „books“ section of]


Last night, I wrote a quick list, answering the above question.

Here are my recommendations [Link]:


Let’s split this up in… books that deal with dark/depressing themes, but show lots of hope and will be uplifting BY THE END (…but not neccessarily right from the beginning):

  • Gabriel Bà: Daytripper [mortality; life is short]
  • Evan S. Connell: Mrs. Bridge [everyday life is depressing; make your own decisions)
  • Cormac McCarthy: The Road [life can be hell; love prevails]
  • Stewart O’Nan: A Prayer for the Dying [everyone is mortal; you can overcome any loss]
  • Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking [it’s not the end that counts; it’s the memories you make]
  • David Mazzucchelli: Asterios Polyp [everyone’s an island, but the happy, accidental connections between people make life worth living]
  • Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture [you might die tomorrow; strife harder TODAY!!]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: No Exit [hell is other people; avoid the ones that belittle you]
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost at Sea [it’s okay to feel adrift once in a while]
  • Rob Sheffield: Love is a Mixe Tape [you will lose love – but you’re stronger than you think!]
  • Gayle Forman: If I stay [even with horrendous loss, there’s lots to live for!]
  • Brad Kessler: Birds in Fall [grief is complex and frightening, but consolation can be found in the weirdest moments]
  • Miriam Toews: Swing Low [if a parent decides to die, it does not mean that he didn’t love you]

I also very, very much would like to recommend the anime series „Neon Genesis Evangelion“. It has a fragile, nervous, deeply unhappy soul-searching main character who has an existential struggle with questions like „Why should I care? What can I do? Who should I fight for?“. The answers are complex, and not sugar-coated at all.


Then, there’s a second, different category: feel-good books, with lots of joy, energy and a life-affirming atmosphere. If you want to feel… happy, warm and consoled, pick the follwing books:

  • Kyohiko Azuma: Yotsuba&! [everyday life is an adventure]
  • Jiro Taniguchi: A distant Neighborhood [when youth is gone… your sense of wonder should remain!]
  • Tove Janson: A Summer Book [life is like the weather. the harsh moments are as much a part of life as the lush ones.]
  • Harper Lee: To kill a Mockingbird [stand up for your beliefs, and reach out to the people around you]
  • Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen [find your family. they don’t have to be the people you were born with.]
  • Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore [life is rich, magical, paradox, scary and unpredictable. and that’s a good thing!]
  • Joyce Maynard: The Usual Rules [kids are growing. and you are, too.]
  • Kurt Busiek: Superman: Secret Identity [every step of growing up is scary. there’s a fuller picture. don’t get clouded by fear and alienation.]
  • Julie Orringer: The Invisible Bridge [every moment counts. celebrate reality. tell people you love them. make a difference.]


That’s all for today: a couple of quick book recommendations for anyone who felt sad or needed consolation. Enjoy!


Related Links:

No Need to Read? 40 disappointing Literary Classics.

Coming up: A list of noteworthy, accomplished and exciting authors

…and the books that didn’t quite work.

Not all of these classics are total failures or trainwrecks – but with all of them, the author either has much better alternative books (I’ll work out a list with recommendations next month)… or the book just wasn’t a very profound or joyful reading experience.

If I could travel back in time and prevent my younger self from wasting time with certain „classic“ books… these would be my candidates:


Chingis (Tschingis) AITMATOV: ‚Jamilia‘ (Dschamilja), 1958

Martin AMIS: ‚Time’s Arrow‘, 1991

Jane AUSTEN: ‚Pride and Prejudice‘, 1813

Simone de BEAUVOIR: ‚All Men are mortal‘, 1946

Thomas BERNHARD: ‚The Loser‘ (Der Untergeher), 1983

Georg BÜCHNER: ‚Leonce & Lena‘, 1838

Mikhail BULGAKOV: ‚Master and Marguerite‘, 1942

Albert CAMUS: ‚A Happy Death‘, 1971

Lewis CARROLL: ‚Through the Looking Glass‘ / ‚Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‘, 1871 / 1865

Bruce CHATWIN: ‚Songlines‘, 1987

Paulo COELHO: ‚Veronika decides to die‘, 1998

J.M. COETZEE: ‚Disgrace‘, 1999

Don DeLILLO: ‚Falling Man‘, 2007

Junot DIAZ: ‚The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘, 2007

Ford Madox FORD: ‚The Good Soldier‘, 1914

Richard FORD: ‚The Sportswriter‘, 1986

E.M. FORSTER: ‚Howard’s End‘, 1910

Nathaniel HAWTHORNE: ‚The Scarlet Letter‘, 1850

Gerhard HAUPTMANN: ‚Lineman Thiel‘, 1888

Ernest HEMINGWAY: ‚To Have and Have not‘, 1937

S.E. HINTON: ‚The Outsiders‘, 1967

James JOYCE: ‚Portrait of the Artist as a young Man‘, 1916

Uwe JOHNSON: ‚Speculations about Jakob‘, 1959

Heinrich von KLEIST: ‚The Marquise of O‘, 1808

Guiseppe Tomasi di LAMPEDUSA: ‚Il Gattopardo‘, 1958

Margaret LAURENCE: ‚The Diviners‘, 1974

Klaus MANN: ‚Pathetic Symphony‘, 1935

Gabriel Garcia MARQUEZ, ‚Love in the Time of Cholera‘, 1985

W. Somerset MAUGHAM: ‚Of Human Bondage‘, 1915

Ian McEWAN: ‚Enduring Love‘, 1991

Haruki MURAKAMI: ‚Afterdark‘, 2004

Vladimir NABOKOV: ‚Transparent Things‘, 1972

Juan Carlos ONETTI: ‚A Brief Life‘, 1950

Annie PROULX: ‚The Shipping News‘, 1993

Jean-Paul SARTRE: ‚The Words‘, 1964

Andrezej SZCZYPIORSKI: ‚The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann‘, 1972

Ingo SCHULZE: ‚Simple Storys‘, 1998

Birgit VANDERBEKE: ‚Das Muschelessen‘, 1990

Thornton WILDER: ‚Theophilus North‘, 1973

Virginia WOOLF: ‚Orlando‘, 1928


What books did you regret? What classics are overrated? Let me know in the comments!


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