19 Books That Have Helped People Through Some Seriously Tough Times

Last year around this time, I was going through some shit, to put it delicately. I was frantically trying to get a diagnosis for something in my body that just wasn’t right, and the anxiety surrounding my health spilled over into every other aspect of my life (like work, and friends, and even just taking the train without crying.) Oh, and I was single; so, it being January in New York City, not having a warm body to cuddle up to only amplified how much I really fucking hate the cold.

I needed an escape. Not a physical one, because, you know, life, but something to get me out of my own head. Still, I grimaced at all the book suggestions I found that were remotely “feel-good”—my misery needed company. Naturally, I picked up a copy of This Close to Happy by Daphne Merkin, a decidedly unhappy memoir chronicling the author’s depression.

The book didn’t magically lift me out of my slump; that’s not how depression—situational or clinical—works. It did, however, make me feel less alone in what I was going through. It didn’t tell me to stop being upset or start thinking about something else. Instead, it helped me find comfort in knowing my feelings weren’t weird or surprising or outrageously abnormal. And perhaps most especially, they weren’t permanent.

That’s the magic of books, isn’t it? You can find a sense of camaraderie in the author or the characters. You can see your innermost feelings articulated on a page and think, Huh, I’m not alone. And a book can transport you from the pesky thoughts antagonizing your mind and into an entirely new landscape in someone else’s magical, fictional world.

But I’m not the only one who has relied on comfort of the literary variety. Here, 19 SELF readers and editors share the books that have helped them most when they, too, were going through some shit.

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    Photo courtesy of Scholastic1The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling“The Harry Potter series is my go-to whenever I am feeling sad, lonely, or going through something. The last time I binge-read those books, I was going through a really bad breakup. The writing is so good and the characters are written so well that they make you feel less lonely. Couple that with the fact that whatever I am going through is not worse than being hunted by and having to fight the most evil wizard of all time, [which] helps me gain perspective.”—Amanda C., 38Buy it here: Amazon; $8
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    Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster2The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky“Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends and always felt like an outsider. The Perks of Being a Wallflower helped me because it was about this kid who was super alone but found a group that accepted him. It gave me hope that eventually I would come across people who I’d become friends with.”—Hailey B., 19Buy it here: Amazon; $9
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    Photo courtesy of Duke University Press Books3Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed“Reading this book was so therapeutic for me. It made me feel like I’m not alone. It also gave me more confidence in academics, helped me figure out what I wanted in a relationship, and [made me] realize it’s not OK to be told I’m sensitive when I point out privilege or structures of oppression.”—Sarah A., 28Buy it here: Amazon; $24

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    Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company4Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris“I can rely on David Sedaris books to make me smile and laugh. (Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite.) His humor is personal and vulnerable. The way he writes about his life, even the sad or humiliating, is deeply, touchingly funny.”—Amanda S., 36Buy it here: Amazon; $9
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    Photo courtesy of Disney Press5The Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan“These books made a time in my life, when my ADHD (attention-defecit hyperactivity disorder) [made me feel] like no one else experienced the same things, a bit more bearable by showing me a group of kids who also have ADHD and dyslexia as heroes who can save the world.”—Emily S., 15Buy it here: Amazon; $6
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    Photo courtesy of Lulu.com6The Women Widowed to Themselves by Lora Mathis“This book of poetry is raw and brave. The author boldly shares their own story and the challenges that come with being feminine. It’s very relatable and it’s a beautiful reminder that I’m never alone.”—Rochelle C., 20Buy it here: Amazon; $17
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    Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster7Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen“I had just graduated college and wasn’t handling the transition well. Springsteen is really open about his struggles with mental illness and it definitely made me feel less alone in my own struggles. His story is pretty incredible too.”—Virginia C., 22Buy it here: Amazon; $13

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  • I read Americanah shortly after graduating starting my first job and moving to New York City. At the time I felt torn...
    Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group8Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie“I read Americanah shortly after graduating, starting my first job, and moving to New York City. At the time, I felt torn between the person I had been and the person I was now becoming—a tension Adichie beautifully encapsulates in Americanah. Though the book is nearly 500 pages long, I finished it in a week, which should only serve as a testament to how incredible it was.”—Lindsey L., 23Buy it here: Amazon; $13
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    Photo courtesy of Random House Publishing Group9The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien“When I was in high school, I had severe depression. All three Lord of the Rings books were not only a great distraction from that struggle, but I also identified very strongly with Frodo’s journey. He leaves this idyllic home and sets out on a difficult and dark journey to rid himself of the ring—an object which makes him feel not like himself and weighs on him constantly. Even when he’s surrounded by others, he feels isolated. This reminded me of how depression made me feel—like I was alone and carrying this incredible burden I couldn’t share with anyone. I ended up getting a Lord of the Rings tattoo, and it always reminds me of that lesson; what happened in the past does not define us, and no matter how dark things may seem, we’re never truly alone.—Kaley J., 22Buy it here: Barnes & Noble; $9
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    Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group10Wild by Cheryl Strayed“I was going through a particularly tough time emotionally and physically, and Strayed’s story really made me feel like I could get through it and became such an inspiration to me.”—Jessica C., 19Buy it here: Amazon; $11
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    Photo courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group11Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert“This book was a real life changer for me. I was experiencing a huge change in my life, having to start all over. This book gave me so many answers to questions I didn’t even know that I had, and also gave me the guidance I needed at the beginning of a fresh start. Any time I was feeling down, I would grab my book and be instantly comforted by the inspiring words.”—Alex C., 21Buy it here: Amazon; $11

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    Photo courtesy of Andrews McMeel Publishing12Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur“In this book, Kaur talks about the dark parts of life no one wants to address, as well as the beautiful parts in her poetry. Having depression and anxiety throughout high school left me feeling helpless and alone until her stories made me realize I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Her work got me through the roughest patch of my life and I still repeat some of her ideas to myself to this day to keep me going.”—Kathryn A., 18Buy it here: Amazon; $9
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    Photo courtesy of Running Press Book Publishers13You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero“I used to constantly feel less than, like I was never good enough. I’ve never loved reading, but when I picked this book up I couldn’t put it down. Sincero uses a personal story that is relatable and brings coping methods to life. After reading this book, I stopped the self-hate and started to get my life in check. I started working out and eating right. This book inspired me to stop putting up with other people’s hate and stop worrying about the things I can’t change. It definitely changed my life.”—Olivia H., 19Buy it here: Amazon; $10
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    Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers14Hunger by Roxane Gay“I just finished Hunger by Roxane Gay and it’s truly incredible. Few books have left me with chills as deep as this one. It’s just so raw and so, so real in a way that both makes it really relatable for anyone who has been made to hate their body (basically everyone) and reminds me just how different my experiences in the world are due to my different forms of privilege. She also gets unbelievably honest about the different traumas she’s experienced in her life, and although my own are different, it was really refreshing and validating to hear from someone who is actively working on their shit and to see just how deep those scars go. It’s not exactly easy to come to terms with the fact that you may never really ‘get over’ something that shaped you in such monumental ways, but I really appreciated hearing someone else’s story that so honestly detailed the path to slowly, persistently making some sort of peace with it.”—Sarah J., 28Buy it here: Amazon; $16
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    Photo courtesy of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.15On Love by Alain de Botton“This book was marvelously written; it told a curious story of a guy who fell in love with a girl he met at random, and continued to capture all the peculiarities of love: how we become blind to things when we are in love, but more importantly, how it doesn’t always work out, and why that is not only OK but holds a certain bit of magic within it. It helped me move on and understand why my first great love didn’t wind up how I thought it would. It’s a great read for anyone in a relationship or getting over one.”—Virginia H., 30Buy it here: Barnes & Noble; $13

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