Reading can help

Are you feeling alienated and alone, with no time or money for therapy and no friends to speak of?*

There’s a book for that.

Our extroverted culture puts a premium on working things out interpersonally. We’re encouraged to use “I statements.” Being “best friends” with our spouses is an aspirational state. “You are not alone,” urge generic Facebook messages aimed at un-isolating the lonely masses. “Just reach out.”

Maybe it’s because I’m an introverted malcontent, but I just can’t fully buy into all this “radical vulnerability.” To me, “I statements” often sound passive-aggressive; being “best friends” with my spouse seems really unsexy; “reaching out” just as often results in being ghosted as it does in connecting with another human.

In a world gone mad (or maybe just cold and self-involved), I would argue that sometimes it’s better to keep your thoughts to yourself and turn to literature to solve your problems.

Let me elaborate.

Mating in Captivity

Problem: Your marriage has lost that “spark.”

Solution: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel:

I’m not big on self-help tomes, particularly those that promise strategies for “spicing up” your LTR. However, this is an intelligent take on the subject of marital stagnation that you won’t feel compelled to hide in your sock drawer.

As Perel writes in the introduction: “Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”

The good news? Perel writes: “It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability, but it’s not impossible.”

Cat's Eye

Problem: Groups of women make you nervous; you have no friends.

Solution: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood:

I gotta get off Facebook. If it’s not one thing (my favorite FB mom group imploding after a vicious debate about the merits of Ruth Bader Ginsberg), it’s another (aforementioned RBG feud resulting in the defacing of someone’s vinyl siding).

Sometimes I feel bad that I’m not part of a sassy group of “badass mamas.” Then I crack open Cat’s Eye — Atwood’s devastating account of the brutality of female friendship — and realize that maybe I’ve actually dodged a bullet.


Problem: Your marriage is DOA.

Solution: Heartburn by Nora Ephron:

My marriage isn’t imploding (yet! fingers crossed …), but if it were, I would definitely dig out my copy of Heartburn.

In this autobiographical novel, Ephron’s character Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers her husband is having an affair.

I love Rachel’s inner monologue when she finally decides to leave her faithless husband: “I am no beauty, and I’m getting on in years, and I have just about enough money to last me 60 days, and I am terrified of being alone, and I can’t bear the idea of divorce. But I would rather die than sit here and pretend it’s OK; I would rather die than sit here figuring out how to get you to love me again; I would rather die than spend five more minutes going through your drawers and wondering where you are and anticipating the next betrayal and worrying about whether my poor, beat-up, middle-aged body with its Caesarean scars will ever turn you on again.”

And then (spoiler alert), Rachel throws a key lime pie in her husband’s face. (In real life, Ephron poured an entire bottle of red wine over her husband’s head.)


Problem: You’re a realist.

Solution: Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich:

Do you make friends and family nervous with your gloomy assessments of the world? Are you sick of being urged to “Look on the bright side?”

Then this book is for you. As Ehrenreich argues, positive thinking has become “a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude.”

She chronicles the rise of positive thinking in America — from the so-called “prosperity gospel” of certain evangelical churches to the “smile or die” approach to curing cancer. It’s an ideal antidote to the cultural forces that constantly suggest we can “attract” wealth, achieve health and happiness — and turn our lives around — if only we adopt the “right” attitude.

Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to [email protected].

*I wrote this column pre-pandemic, and I still stand by my reading suggestions. But now, on Day 9 of social distancing, I can’t help but wonder: What books can support us through this crisis? Stay tuned!