Our Reading Lives

Books Anchor Me in an Increasingly Chaotic World

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Arvyn Cerézo

Senior Contributor

Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find them on arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

Content warning: depression

When the world is on fire, reading books helps me feel calmer and surer of myself. As someone with mental health problems, books help me make sense out of the everyday chaos, quiet my mental chatter, and find some inner peace.

I’ve been having a difficult time lately, and I need the distraction to redirect my treacherous thoughts. Books seem like the key out of the prison of my mind.

I had a messy friendship breakup in the beginning of April, and I’m not sure if I can still mend the broken bond. He was my brother; the level of emotional pain rivals that of a breakup with a significant other. My career as a writer/journalist is also starting to affect my mental health such that it makes me want to quit the industry for good. Whenever a story comes up, there’s always one or two nasty comments on social media for the most trivial of things. It’s very demoralizing and degrading. I recently altered the notification filters on my social media accounts to stop receiving unsolicited mentions and messages. What I don’t know won’t hurt me, or at least I’d like to think so. And then watching the news doesn’t help either. The 24-hour news cycle — the coverage on social and political unrest, pandemic-related issues, migration crisis, and so on — feels overwhelming.

It’s extremely taxing to get things done whenever a depressive episode occurs, but I somehow still manage to fight my negative thoughts. I learned of bibliotherapy in the last few years, which has been very helpful, especially during this period of social isolation. I force myself to pick up a book and lose myself in it. Sometimes, it’s hard to get past the first sentence. Sometimes, it works. And when it does, it feels like slamming the door on a noisy room.

Books anchor me in an increasingly chaotic world. When I devour a book, I get engrossed in its world and I temporarily forget all my worries in life. After indulging in a good read for several hours, I feel…calmer and peaceful; my mind magically quiets down. I feel like things could get better somehow.

Escapist or genre fiction, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, dystopian, and historical fiction, strangely helps me feel empowered. The fast-paced mystery of a fantasy adventure involving sassy, magic-wielding, and smart-mouthed assassins keeps me on edge of my seat — in a positive way. The late-night chills that horror novels provide alter my perspective a little bit. The sign of an intelligent life in science fiction books sometimes suspends my disbelief and engages my mind. Taking a trip through time with historical fiction helps me relive the past long gone.

Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez

The dystopian novel titled Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez plunged me into a world where diversity doesn’t exist. The book follows a gay drag queen named Kay, who, after being thrown out by his family and losing his livelihood, joins a resistance movement to fight against the totalitarian regime in his country. The book transported me to a futuristic, dystopian Canada where people of color and people with disabilities are being rounded up to be thrown into concentration camps. The experience was very unpleasant but very eye-opening as well.

Though I’m shamelessly embracing escapism through books, at least it helps me to step back from my thoughts and emotions for a while. You’ll be surprised to know that some authors have also turned to books at some point in their lives when they felt depressed.

My experience brought to mind the undying debate between genre versus literary fiction. Genre fiction is often frowned upon by many who think that literary fiction is “better.” Some members of the literati even went as far as coining the term “literature with a capital ‘L’,” which I think is very divisive. But anyway, that is another issue for another day. The main thing is that books, no matter what genre they belong to, can be life-changing for people experiencing depression. I’m still working on making myself mentally and emotionally stronger each day.

My burdens don’t get dissolved after getting lost in the world of dragons or ancient civilizations, but I feel invigorated to face them once more. The future may feel uncertain, but I know that books will always be there for me whenever I need escape.