Blog, Bookish Life

Bright Books for Dark Times: The Case for Joyful Literature


Bright Books for Dark Times: The Case for Joyful Literature, various book covers

I planned to write about joyful literature some time ago, when I hadn’t realized where we would find ourselves in history, that we would have so much to mourn and so much work to do. I considered holding off in light of all this. But, the more I thought about it, I realized that this is precisely the right time to offer some suggestions on where to seek out some solace—not as a a form of blind escapism, but as a way to carve out a restorative space for when you are overwhelmed by the work.

Rage and resist and then rest. Knock on doors, write postcards, donate, march, canvas, run for something, volunteer locally, sign up as an abortion escort, or to act as host for those seeking abortion rights in your state. But, when it becomes too much bear, find spaces that make you feel free.

I came to the topic in the pre-post-Roe world, in a funny way. Watching the show Julia on HBO, I realized it lacks any kind of drama. The show is, to use a fad term, a vibe. And, to my surprise, I loved it.  It is imperfect—particularly in its use of a fictitious Black female producer, which makes the history feel more inclusive than it was. But it is also pleasant, cozy, and, above all, calming. This isn’t everything we need at this moment in history, but it is something to help us power through it.

There is a case to be made for subversive joy, joy in the face of those who do not wish to see you bask in it. Pride is a gleaming example of subversive joy–a riotous party, full of dance and music. Philosopher and Activist Cornel West wrote at length about the subversive joy of Black Christianity, its celebratory nature, and the humor and joy of Black people in response to ongoing systemic repression.

There is also a psychological argument for cultivating joy. Tara Brach, psychologist, author, and proponent of Buddhist meditation, speaks about de-conditioning our negativity bias. Brach explains that we fixate on the negative, that these aspects of our lives tend to have a greater effect on our psychological well being than the positive ones and that we have to actively work to focus on positivity through sympathetic joy, gratitude, and full presence in the moment we are in.

Brach isn’t arguing for spiritual bypassing, or ignoring the negative aspects of our world. We can’t ignore all of the many injustices we bear witness to. But we can live deeply in the moment, appreciating and celebrating what joy we are able to find. As Brach says, we can “bathe in the goodness” that is available to us when we can.

I’ve compiled this list of joyful literature based on the feelings they inspire. They are places of warmth and refuge–of goodness–for me. I hope that they offer some of the same to you.

We are all told one way to cultivate happiness and calm is to turn towards nature, to savor its beauty, to pay attention to the movement of water, the rustling of leaves, the comings and goings of the birds. Some of my favorite authors manage to replicate that feeling in their work through vivid description and reflection about our natural world. Margaret Renkl does this beautifully in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. She has such keen perceptions and considers animals and insects and their habitats with a wonder that is contagious.

Annie Dillard similarly captures the dramatic unfolding of nature and its seasons over the course of a year in her The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The 1975 Pulitzer Prize Winner is still spellbinding. It’s a poetic and moving meditation on the outdoors.

A list of joyful literature would be incomplete without Mary Oliver. Her master collection, Devotions contains more than 200 of her poems, many of which reflect on the beauty of the physical world and the interconnectedness of the beings who reside within it. Her poems are insightful and ecstatic. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” she writes. Her expert attention elevates nature to the realm of the spiritual over and over again.

A novel about life in a world that has been ravaged by a pandemic is an unlikely addition to a list of joyful books, but Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel deserves its place anyway. Mandel’s portrayal of a roving Shakespearean theater troupe in the post-pandemic landscape is vibrant and hopeful. “Survival is insufficient,” a phrase that comes to define the novel, is a rallying cry for a world where art and connection is prioritized and valued. Station Eleven shows us glimpses of what exactly that might look like.

Middlemarch by George Eliot transports us to another kind of world entirely, the one of a fictional English Midland town, in 1829 to 1832. Eliot expertly weaves the stories of interconnected characters together against this backdrop in a way that is so utterly immersive and enthralling, it is a wonderful space to spend some time, particularly in the company of Dorothea, an exceptional and principled woman who manages to make her own choices and assert her independence in a society that makes it very difficult for a woman to do so.

Another immersive and sprawling world to enter is that of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, which follows the life of Marie de France, who we see, over the course of the book, transform from orphaned child to powerful abbess. In her abbey tucked away in the English countryside, she empowers herself and the women in her charge, wrestling with war, famine, desire, and god. de France is a proto-feminist–a lover and champion of women–who comes to wield great power. Matrix is not a light book by any means, but is in enthralling, engrossing, and inspiring.

In Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers, Grace Porter is also on a journey to find her power–albeit a very different one. Grace is a recent graduate with a PhD in astronomy, whose life turns upside when, after waking from a drunken night in Vegas, she’s discovered she’s married a stranger. The resulting search for and time spent learning about the woman she managed to fall for overnight is fun, refreshing, and heartwarming. Honey Girl is a queer love story that’s also about learning to care for and love yourself.

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K Le Guin gives us the wizarding world we deserve, one that is vibrant and enchanting. The six books bring us deep into this complex world composed of many islands where magic abounds and has the power to sail ships and to doom souls. Written over the span of 30 years, the series showcases many of Le Guin’s gifts–her visionary storytelling, her erudite narration, her well-wrought characters. Earthsea is deeply smart and deeply moving. The books are not always exuberant or gleeful; there are villains to vanquish and lessons to learn. But I can’t think of a more joyful place than this magical archipelago to inhabit for a while.

Sam is a writer based in Brooklyn. An ex-bicycle messenger and a marathoner, she is a lover of adventure. She is an avid reader of literary fiction and nonfiction in all forms–but has a special love for the weird and the dystopian.

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