From London, the author Alain de Botton, whose organization The School of Life is devoted to helping people find ways to wrestle with their troubles, recommends a story for young children, “The Tiger Who Came To Tea,” by Judith Kerr, about a tiger who unexpectedly shows up at the door and demands to be served tea. It’s a lesson in how to adapt to the unforeseen with flexibility and aplomb.
He also suggests the essay “The Death of the Moth,” in which Virginia Woolf considers the pathos of a humble moth fluttering ineffectually outside her window. “Properly seen, it is a marvelous, beautiful thing,” de Botton said in an email. “Through her essay we can be drawn to see afresh, and with deserved generosity, the worth of our own lives.”
And I, in turn, would recommend one of de Botton’s own books, the surprisingly delightful “The Consolations of Philosophy,” which is both an introduction to six philosophers and a primer for applying their ideas to our own lives. The chapter on Nietzsche’s belief about the link between happiness and painful experience is particularly appropriate right now. “All lives are difficult,” de Botton writes in that chapter. “What makes some of them fulfilled as well is the manner in which pains have been met.”
One way of measuring a life’s reading is to remember what books have helped along the way. When I was 8 and my father died, I spent much of the summer lounging around with a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries, fortified by Ring Dings (correct eating method: surgically nibble off the chocolate coating, work through the “cake,” and then savor the crème reward). With her titian hair and her harmless boyfriend and her nose for mystery, Nancy Drew got me through those first few months.
But it was Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle In Time,” which I read and re-read to counter the lingering sadness of the ensuing years, that soothed my soul. How I loved stubborn, awkward Meg and her lanky boyfriend, Calvin, and the three exotic extraterrestrial ladies who descend to help them and our young planet fight their way through the darkness. And at heart (though I didn’t realize it at the time), the book is the story of a girl who loses her father and then finds him again, so it was just right for me then.
In 2001, I was still in London when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Much as the coronavirus feels both personal and global, 9/11 felt like two tragedies layered on top of each other, the larger one and then a smaller one, because that day I (along with so many others) lost a person I loved.
I consoled myself with Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” a novel set partly during World War II about love, grief and the transcendent ability of fiction to present a counter-reality to the sadness in our lives. I found it profoundly moving, and I have gone back to it often. I read it again as my mother was dying a few years ago, and I read perhaps my favorite book of all, “Charlotte’s Web,” aloud to her as I sat by her bedside. We were both so reassured by the notion of Charlotte living on in her children and grandchildren.
I’m not sure what the exact right book is for today, and I suspect our notions of what we need will change over these next weeks and months. But for now, I’ve been losing myself in Nancy Mitford’s novels. My favorite is “The Pursuit of Love,” set in England (and Spain and France, a little) in the years before and during World War II. It is elegant and funny and romantic and written with the lightest touch, but it also bracing and wise. It shows us how to be brave, how to approach daily life with humor and pleasure and occasional joy, even when the world seems to be falling apart.