The Pharmacopeia Revisited, or Reading While Stressed

I will now try to weld the disparate sides of my brain/edges of my thoughts into one whole expression. Trying counts, right?

1) I posted a long time ago with a book pharmacopeia, which aimed to offer people a book that would, essentially, cure what ailed them. I am deeply convinced that this is, in some way, the solution to the world's problems.

2) I am currently more stressed out than I would like to be. And it's important to note that nothing truly bad or difficult is happening. It's just the regular stress of regular life, no worse. But I am, shall we say, not exactly rolling with the punches. No, with me, when someone punches me instead of rolling, I fall down and cry.

3) The best way I have found to get back to myself, to regain perspective, to find peace, is reading. BUT. While I did, finally, finish The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it was never what I wished it were: a ticket out of my own head. I am now, at Mr. Diamond's recommendation, reading this:


It's not doing the trick. And by trick I mean, of course, rescuing me from myself.

But here's the thing. (Can you feel the thoughts all coming together as one? No?) I don't think the reason these books aren't working is the books. I think the problem is me and my stress: it's making it almost impossible to read in a satisfying way. Which is making me more stressed. Which is making it almost impossible to…do you see where I'm going with this?

I am planning, anyway, to do a more focused version of the pharmacopeia, in the fervent and probably misguided hope that it will somehow catch on, and we will all be healed. And in that version, I will, if I can, include the book that can bring someone out of this situation.

Until that happens, does anyone know the way out of this conundrum?

Side note: We are supposed to read Wolf Hall for my book group. If this has the magical power to break through my situation, I promise to let you all know.

19 thoughts on “The Pharmacopeia Revisited, or Reading While Stressed

  1. For me, when faced with a very urgent need-to-escape-my-own-brain, I go either YA fantasy (Diana Wynne Jones usually does the trick) or English murder mystery. They have been my escape hatches since I was very young. Think about what used to work for you then. Might still.


  2. I’m with Claire. and I would add, that I go back to books I enjoy reading that I’m happy to read again. This summer, it was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. In grad school a good Sherlock Holmes book or a good (not lame) Agatha Christie.
    Oh, and I find a cup of black tea with sugar and milk does wonders for my soul! Hang in there Diamond, this too shall pass.


  3. I’m with the others– re-reading is the trick for me here. Anything fairly simple, plot-driven, and that I LOVE.
    For me that is any Harry Potter, most Barbara Kingsolver, any James Herriott, and (sorry!) some Michael Chabon.
    But regardless of what it is, the trick is, if you get distracted from reading by your stress, you still know what’s happening and still love to go on the journey.
    Good luck!


  4. I have to agree with everyone else: Re-reads of beloved MG or YA are a great stress-reliever as are murder mysteries, which rarely resemble real life for a modern mother. Those usually break my reading blocks. If you’re stressing too much about the reading block itself, then skew younger: Babymouse, Winnie-the Pooh, Olivia, whatever really delights you and which you can easily finish in no time.


  5. Yep, YA (and earlier) novels. I just read the *entire* Casson series by Hillary McKay. Start with Saffy’s Angel and go from there.


  6. English murder mysteries, definitely (I’m heavily partial to Brother Cadfael), but also do you ever read comics? Like Calvin and Hobbes, or Tintin, or currently I am working my way through Asterix and Obelix compendia (they have these nice new ones). Soothing, and funny, and not so challenging to a tired brain (and yes, they’re re-reads too).
    I know this is a blog about books but I also must admit that I feel like sometimes television is required, and that’s okay, though often it is sort of literary television, like British murder mysteries or whatever.
    Hope you feel better!


  7. By nice new ones, I mean these new omnibus edition, not new entries in the series (that would be reprehensible not nice).
    Also, I got “Moliere,” complete with accent, for a verification word… very appropriate!


  8. I curl up in a fetal position with a big stack of picture books. Pathetic. I know. But we all need “rescuing from ourselves” from time to time.
    So, that being said, I guess that puts me in the “reread the favorites” category going in this thread here. 🙂


  9. Our kids do it, so why shouldn’t we? Give yourself permission to go back to the old, comforting favorites. Even if they were/are suspenseful, you know how it will turn out (unlike everyday life). My 11-year old – who started middle school this year – is interspersing her hip new choices with The Five Little Peppers and The Secret Garden.
    These old favorites could, perhaps, still your mind and allow you to relax into reading the way you clearly need to. Give in!
    (or, come on over and I’ll whip up some scones. Or brownies. We can have tea. Or wine)


  10. Much of my life is stressful — inordinately so, in fact, due to my daughter’s constant seizures. However, I find that dark, intense books do the trick for me. Recently, I finished The Patrick Melrose novels and wonder if you’ve read them? I also periodically read William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech or — better, yet — listen to the recording of it. Finally, poetry sustains me — the same stuff, over and over.


  11. Scones AND brownies AND tea AND wine. Thank you all for these amazing recommendations. I, too, have been seeing the newly minted middle schooler going back to My Side of the Mountain etc, while venturing into The Clique etc. And Elizabeth, I have not read the Patrick Melrose novels. And I have never read Faulkner’s acceptance speech, though I will now…


  12. Also: the excellent Els Kushner, who often posts, sent me this excellent comment, which had the best metaphor for how I feel of all (and in her honor I am disabling the damn captcha):
    I’m going through the same thing! I’ve started and abandoned a half-dozen books in the past month, including a few comfort reads that usually work (like Calvin Trillin’s early food essays). What broke me through it– sort of, anyway– was the only Maureen Johnson book I hadn’t already read, The Key to the Golden Firebird. That gave me enough momentum to tackle The Diviners, which I’m enjoying so far, but the darn thing’s 600 pages long so I just took a quick restorative break to read Lynda Barry’s “autobiofictionography”, One! Hundred! Demons!
    So, in short: Maureen Johnson. Lynda Barry. And be kind to yourself through this. It’s a terrible kind of purgatory for a reader, like being hungry and nauseated at the same time.


  13. This week I’ve been reading my son’s copy of Fin Family Moomintroll before bed. I’m a little stressed too.
    I liked Wolf Hall a lot.


  14. I go back to childhood favorites: first 5 Trixie Belden books, the first of the Boxcar Children, the eponymous classic for which your blog is named. Or a few adult favorites like Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night.
    I really enjoyed Doorways in the Sand and never knew anyone else who read it.


  15. My favorite “with pictures” comfort read: Tales from Outer Suburbia, or really anything by Shaun Tan
    Without pictures (seconding the YA and re-reading camps): His Dark Materials trilogy, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time… also I find Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” to be a great comfort. I have recently been in just such a life stress place and all of these things truly helped.


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