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How to Read When the World Is Terrible

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Jessica Woodbury

Staff Writer

Jessica Woodbury's professional life has taken her to prisons, classrooms, strip clubs, and her living room couch. After years as a Public Defender in the South, she now lives in Boston with her two small children. Cursed with a practical streak, she always wanted to pursue music or writing but instead majored in Biochemistry because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. These days she does absolutely nothing with science or law and instead spends too much time oversharing on the internet. She has a soft spot for crime novels and unreliable narrators. And the strip club gig was totally as a lawyer, she swears.  Blog: Don't Mind the Mess Twitter: jessicaesquire

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Tuesday, January 3rd.

This post originally ran July 13, 2016.

 When awful things are happening all over the news and your Facebook feed, sometimes books are exactly what you need. But how do you choose what to read when you’re feeling fragile or angry or depressed or confused? There are lots of ways to use reading to help you conquer or confront your difficult feelings, and there’s no one right way. Here are some suggestions of what to read and how it can help you.


If you want your reading to take you away from it all, consider a few things. Romance is a good genre to turn to in times of turmoil because happily-ever-after endings are required in the genre, so you know that everything will turn out okay. If you need a read to comfort and calm and remind you of what love can do in the world, Romance is a good bet. Suggestions: Our First Times: The Books That Made Us Romance Readers.

Sometimes you may just want to forget the world exists all together. In that case, go seriously speculative with Science-Fiction or Fantasy. While some books in these genres can be very similar to real life or confront difficult moral issues, others are all about world building and imagination and that’s where you should go when you need a break from the world you actually live in. Suggestions: 9 Diverse Fantasy Books That Will Challenge Your Idea of Fantasy Fiction, 7 Standalone Novels for Science-Fiction Lovers.

Maybe try a laugh? The comedian memoir/essay genre serves pretty much just one purpose: to make you smile. Also effective: gossipy memoirs by movie stars with juicy tidbits about other movie stars. Suggestions: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?Ladies Who’d Make a Sailor Blush.

Light & Happy

When the world is tough you may not need to escape it as much as you need a softer and warmer version of it. Go find your favorite book from when you were 12 years old. Go find your favorite comfort read that you know backwards and forwards. It can help you restore order to chaos and feel centered. Suggestions: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, everything Harry Potter.

It’s also a good time for something fluffy, the book equivalent of a hug. If you’re religious, inspirational novels can hit the spot. Books that are described as “charming,” the ones you give your grandmother, the ones set in quaint English villages or quirky small towns. Examples: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel SocietyThe Storied Life of A. J. FikryReading Pathways: Georgette Heyer.

If you just want someone to tell you that it’s going to be okay, there are definitely books that can do that for you. One of our favorites is Tiny Beautiful Things.

Feel Some Feelings

If you’re feeling numb and need some catharsis, try a weepy. Sad books can be light or dark, sweet or difficult. There’s a broad range between The Notebook and A Little Life, so think about the tone, subject, and style that will work best for your mood. Suggestions: The Books That Made Us Ugly-Sob.

Stare Into the Darkness

If going for something different or happy just feels wrong, it’s okay to let yourself read something difficult and sad. If the tragedy around you still hurts too much, you can read something that fits the tone but changes the subject. There are a lot of books that dive into the difficulties of war, racism, and violence in different ways. Or maybe a deep dive right into the issues that hurt so much will help you feel informed and empowered. Fiction and nonfiction can both work. Suggestions: 48 Excellent World War II Novels5 Good Books About Race in America; Guns, Politics, and Fear: A Reading ListBlack Speculative Fiction is Protest Work.

Keep Your Brain Busy

Maybe your mind just can’t drop something and you need to keep it occupied. Time to learn. Get yourself some nonfiction stuffed full of interesting facts. If there’s a big fat book you’ve always meant to read but haven’t quite gotten to yet, now is the time. Suggestions: The Emperor of All MaladiesGuns, Germs, and SteelThe Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Do Something Different

Having trouble getting into your normal reading? Change it up. Now is an excellent time for comics and graphic novels. Or maybe try audiobooks? Are you normally a prose reader? Try poetry! If you’re normally a fiction reader, try nonfiction. Break out of your usual habits  Suggestions: The Comics That Turned Us Into Comics Readers, The Books That Made Us Audiobook Listeners, Poetry Books for People Who Are Afraid of Poetry, Nonfiction for Thriller Lovers.


No matter what approach you choose, remember there’s no one right way to read when everything is terrible. What’s right is what works for you. The best thing you can do is remember that reading helps you care for yourself and find what you need in the world when everything feels out of control.

What are your reading strategies during difficult times?