Earlier this year, I shared a personal reflection on the mental health toll of living with systematic gender discrimination both at home and in a wider social context in Saudi Arabia. Depression remained a close and unwelcome companion well into my twenties, and among the many tools I used to cope with the illness – therapy, antidepressants, exercise, socialising, solitude – books remained the most consistent.
As a child, I read voraciously. I read to escape, to occupy (and preoccupy) my mind, to feel less alone. Books transported me to other worlds and opened up windows onto other possibilities. Fiction, in particular, illuminated truths that reality sometimes obscured, truths that transcended accidents of birth, like culture or time period. The characters brought to life in stories wanted love, knowledge, freedom, peace. They were complicated and flawed. They faced obstacles, and experienced pain and loss. They learned and changed.
On the first day of my “History of Philosophy: Aquinas to Kant” class at Columbia, Professor Christia Mercer told us that the best self-help books were the works of philosophy. At the time, I was skeptical, a healthy response to any blanket statement, but as I read more philosophy over the course of my degree, I began to understand why. Philosophy asks and seeks to answer questions about life, the human condition, morality, reality, truth, love, suffering. It asks what, and how do we know, and why.
When I told my high school English teacher that I had decided to major in Philosophy, he laughed derisively and said, “Why? Philosophy is just literature, stripped down.” Again, it took me a while to understand what he meant. Books help us figure out the world and our place in it and how best to live: philosophy does so directly,* and literature, indirectly.
Today is World Book Day, so today in particular, I celebrate the books that rescued me from loneliness, that filled my imagination when reality felt empty, that taught me how to live and helped me stay alive. I celebrate the habit of reading that I formed at a young age and books of all kinds that continue to keep me company today.
Image is of Matt Haig’s brilliant book, “Reasons to Stay Alive” whose words helped me stay alive and whose title, for me, captures one of the many magical things that books can do.
*This is, of course, an oversimplification. Anyone who has read Kant, for example, knows that this is not always true.