The literary cure

Wise Words
by Julie Hoegh
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Need a tonic for a broken heart? Medicine for a numbed mind? Treatment for a soul looking to be renewed? It’s all in the written word. Bookworm Julie Hoegh curates a pharmacy of poems, essays and short stories to remedy your every ill

The Poetry Prescription:

Been dumped by the boyfriend? Done something stupid? Lost someone you love? Or just in need of some quick TLC? Look up your predicament and help yourself to a poetry cure from William Sieghart’s Poetry Pharmacy, a wonderful collection of poems (and the inspiration for this very article) prescribed by Sieghart for every kind of heartache. How about Walther D. Wintle’s poem Thinking, an energising potion against defeatism, for example?

If you think you are beaten, you are,

If you think you dare not, you don’t

If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,

It’s almost a clinch you won’t

Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man;

But soon or late the man who wins,

Is the one who thinks he can.

The Mind-shift Essay

Now essays might sound a bit too much like homework, but they are not necessarily tedious, and they are usually short. I loved Emilie Pine’s raw and honest reflections around alcoholism, infertility and teenage rebellion in Notes to Self. Likewise, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s eye-opening letter to his 15-year-old son Between the World and Me, will give you a searingly honest account of what it’s like to be black in contemporary America. And if you just want to laugh, read neuroscientist Dr David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 40 made-up scenarios of what the afterlife might look like. Imagine one in which the world is made up only of people you’ve met before, for example.

Your parents, your cousins, your spectrum of friends through the years. All your old lovers […] Those you dated, those you almost dated, those you longed for. It’s a blissful opportunity to spend quality time with your one thousand connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away. It’s only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn. […] You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.

Dr David Eagleman

The Big Idea Essay

Looking for an intellectual top-up but don’t have time to read the entire On the Origin of Species? Then the Penguin Great Ideas series is for you. Choose from 70 bite-size essays for easy consumption, beautifully bound in paperback. Pretty much everything is covered: science, philosophy, politics, history and literature. They range from the sinister, On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt, to the melancholic, On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. From the self-destructive, Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey, to the reassuring, Common Sense by Thomas Paine. From the well-known, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, to the baffling, Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell. Just reading the titles of this collection will be worth your time. And if they end up lying unread around the house, rest assured that at least you’ll look smart.

Short Stories To Save Your Soul

If you’re pressed for time, short stories might be your saviour. Easily consumed within a couple of commutes, they are nevertheless by no means the easy way out. In fact, I often find them more challenging than novels. There are, of course, hundreds of good ones and I couldn’t possibly cover them all here. If I were to start somewhere, though, I’d grab Austrian Stefan Zweig’s Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, a story of consuming passion set on the French Riviera in the 1920s; Carmen Maria Machado’s The Husband Stitch from her collection Her Body & Other Parties, which will give you a whole new perspective on post-partum stitching; Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss, in which exuberance triumphs marital despair or her best known short story The Garden Party, both from Katherine Mansfield: Selected Stories. Helen Simpson, a preeminent chronicler of modern female life, is not only spot on but also hilariously funny. Start with Give Me Daughters Any Day; if you thought your relatives were a pest, think again. How about this one for a granny, for example?

“What are you reading?” asked Vesta.

“A book on babies so I can write a leaflet for my Bo Peep Agency.”

“What a damfool name that is,” said Vesta. “And a damfool idea too. What do you know about babies? You’ve never had any.”

“You don’t always have to experience things personally to know about them.”

“You’ve left it a bit late in the day if you’re thinking of having one now. Even if you did, you’d have old babies. Wizened little things with all sorts of problems.”

When You’d Rather be Listening than Reading..

Listening to conversations about books is the next best thing to reading them. BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, in which Mariella Frostrup interviews authors and discusses books, is well established and always interesting. The New Yorker has a series of fiction podcasts in which contemporary authors pick stories from The New Yorker’s archives, read them and then discuss them with the fiction editor of the magazine. One of my absolute favourite London bookshops, the London Review Bookshop, records its many excellent author talks and publishes them as podcasts you can listen to from the comfort of your sofa. Or, if truly desperate, the app Blinkist condenses books into 15 to 20-minute reads, basically CliffsNotes for adults, only it's exclusively non-fiction (thank God!). Feels a bit like cheating to me, but if you’re desperate to impress someone or need to look good in an interview, at least now there’s an easy way.

Julie Hoegh is the founder of the book blog Bookstoker.com which recommends the best literary fiction, classics, non-fiction and children’s books.