Books for When Anxiety Makes it Hard to Concentrate

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

Books can make for a wonderful escape in anxious times – but sometimes, in those times, it’s hard to concentrate for long, especially when we first pick up a book.  That’s when a particular type of read can come in really handy: the book that comes in short chunks. Maybe it’s in the form of a diary, or letters, or maybe the chapters are really short. We can pick it up, even if we don’t feel like it, and force ourselves to read a page or two. And then, out of nowhere the magic happens: a really good book will lure us in with short chapters but then keep our attention and draw us in so that we keep turning pages and forget to check our phones.

The Book of Delights cover imageThe Book of Delights by Ross Gay

This book may be just what a lot of us need right now: it’s a collection of short lyric essays, written during a turbulent time in Ross Gay’s life, which stops and notices “ordinary wonders”. It celebrates the small things that make up life without shying away from tough issues. The shortest essays are a paragraph long, and the longest are only five pages.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

This is one of my go-to comfort reads, because Bridget Jones never fails to make me laugh. She makes me nostalgic for the ’90s, and really quite jealous of Helen Fielding’s biting and entertaining social satire. Read the book, then, of course, watch the film, because who doesn’t need a bit of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in these dark times?

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Written in fragments, not dissimilarly to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, this 2017 novel is about a young PhD student experiencing existential angst even as she stands on the threshold of what seems like the perfect life. It doesn’t really have chapters as such, just two parts divided into very short sections, which means you can pick it up and put it down more or less wherever you want to – but you probably won’t want to! And, bonus: it’s only 211 pages long, so you’ll get to feel good about finishing a book sooner than you might otherwise.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

This delightful book is a collection of letters that Nina Stibbe wrote home when she nannied for a posh family in 1980s London. It’s a lovely, easy read, full of gentle British humour.

The Roxy Letters by Mary Pauline Lowry

Admittedly, this one isn’t out until April, but I highly recommend preordering it so that it can land on your doorstep as soon as humanly possible. Set in the simpler time of 2012, it’s the story of Roxy, who’s trying to find her way in life while fighting against the gentrification of her beloved Austin, Texas. I’m kicking past Claire for having read it already, because it’s actually exactly what I want to read right now – it’s fun, touching, and slightly ridiculous in all the best ways.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

This one is a modern British classic, and it’s laugh out loud funny in places. Adrian is growing up with divorcing parents in the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s, coming to terms with his newfound hormones and raging crush on his schoolmate Pandora, and permanently devastated over the BBC’s constant rejection of his poetry.