Poetry and People

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 26, 2011

Over the last two years, I’ve given a couple of interviews to journalists, mainly about my research on issues of justice, or, sometimes, about my reasons to swap economics for political philosophy, and my views on those fields. But now those same journalists are calling or e-mailing me back with questions where I really don’t have any expertise at all. They could ask any of us, really. Here’s one, that I thought is interesting to share.

A religiously-inspired progressively-leaning magazine is starting a new series, namely asking people which book “provides support, or is a book to which one often returns”. And the answer cannot be the Bible. I actually don’t think I can answer this question. Most fiction, with very few exceptions, I’ve only read once. Non-fiction I read is either informative (like King Leopold’s Ghost, or Joris Luyendijk’s book on the Middle East), or else it is scholarly, but then I don’t think I see it as providing (moral) support or as an inspirational book. Of course, I’ve opened A Theory of Justice or Inequality Reexamined or Justice, Gender and the Family many times, but that’s mostly because I want to return to the arguments to examine them. Moreover, most of the (non-professional) reading I do is on blogs and the internet.

So what, if anything, could be similar to an atheist as the Bible is to a Christian? I really don’t know. But if I’m forced to give an answer, I would say: I prefer talking to people over reading books if I need (moral) guidance or support, and if I need inspiration or some distance and non-analytical reflection, I turn to poetry. I still have, ripped from a student’s magazine when I was studying in Göttingen in 1994/5, a page with a Poem written by Nazim Hikmet, translated in German – a poem to which I have returned many, many times:

einzeln und frei
wie ein Baum
und brüderlich
wie ein Wald
ist unsere Sehnsucht.

So give me poetry and people if I need inspiration or support. And you?



Xerographica 10.26.11 at 9:10 pm

1. The Fear of Freedom by Erich Fromm
2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

And the poems of Stephan Crane…

Tradition, thou art for suckling children,
Thou art the enlivening milk for babes;
But no meat for men is in thee.
Then —
But, alas, we all are babes.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.26.11 at 9:17 pm

You might be interested in this discussion of a similar question on the physics blog Cosmic Variance, tho none of the proposed answers were very satisfying.

Re this:

what, if anything, could be similar to an atheist as the Bible is to a Christian? I really don’t know. But if I’m forced to give an answer, I would say: I prefer talking to people over reading books if I need (moral) guidance or support

On this question, Regis Debray suggests in his memoir that at least for communist-tinged atheists, books are even more morally central than for religious people. Unfortunately I don’t have it with me, but there’s a wonderful passage toward the end when he asks what ultimately he and so many other leftists of his generation were committed to, and answers, To books. The formative experience was almost always something you read when you were young, that you spent the rest of your life trying to keep alive and to measure up to.


Michael Richardson 10.26.11 at 9:24 pm

1. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. (Persig)
2. The Worthing Saga. (Orson Scott Card)


Fatty2cent 10.26.11 at 9:37 pm

I don’t think there is an equivilant “Athiest Bible,” but as an athiest I believe that some literature can be usefull as a reference or a go-to in times of internal strife. One that I hope others can back me up on is Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet,’ which is to me one of the most beautiful things ever written down.


Tim Wilkinson 10.26.11 at 9:51 pm

From the sublime to the ridiculous – Athier-than-thou hack Anthony Grayling has cobbled together something marketed as an atheist’s bible: ‘The Good Book: A Secular Bible’. Actually, searching for it on Amazon divulged the fact that there are a fair few others available.


Phil 10.26.11 at 9:53 pm

I can imagine the Society of the Spectacle being a comfort in hard times, or Ducasse’s Poésies (“Non imparfait, non déchu, l’homme n’est plus le grand mystère.”) But the only book I actually have turned to for support is Tom Phillips’s A Humument, which has a quality of wisdom tempered by an oddly reassuring indifference – a bit like using the I Ching or opening the Bible at random. And that’s more an artwork than a book, really.

I generally get more comfort from other forms than books – Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) or The Phantom of Liberty can do me a power of good. Or else I turn to folk songs, with their strong plain melodies and bizarre turns of phrase (“no man shall uncomfort thee”, “she’s played it all over, all on her pipes of ivory”,”we marched them forth in inveterate streams”…). Why that makes them comforting I’m not sure, but it works for me.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.26.11 at 9:59 pm

I think Brecht’s poetry, especially “To Posterity,” has been a source of inspiration for many nonbelievers.


Substance McGravitas 10.26.11 at 10:00 pm

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.


Chris Bertram 10.26.11 at 10:01 pm


Matt McIrvin 10.26.11 at 10:30 pm

Raymond Smullyan’s 5000 B. C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies. Even though I find some of his logician’s mysticism kind of daft, I nevertheless find Smullyan’s essential kindness comforting, and his insistence that any ethics worth having can’t be some kind of rigged game with secret rules. It’s a book I’ve come back to frequently when I’m feeling down.


Stag Party Palin 10.26.11 at 11:02 pm

There are some books I’ve read more than once, but nothing like reading re-reading and re-re-reading theological source works. What fills that void is music. Some pieces I never get tired of hearing, and most music is “uplifting” in one way or another. I even listen to Bach, in spite of being an atheist…….


Salient 10.26.11 at 11:03 pm

Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes.

Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. I used to have an engraved ring that quoted ‘rest in reason, move in passion’ and at the time it was probably the most precious thing I owned. Just for kicks, a few passages that have come to mind lately while Internet-browsing:

‘Crime and Punishment’ — Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world. // But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, // So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.

‘Freedom’ — At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom, // Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

‘Talking’ — You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; // And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. // And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.


bob mcmanus 10.26.11 at 11:12 pm

Keep going back to over last 40 years?

Wilfred Owen at least twice a year
Rilke: Hours, Neue Gedichte, Elegies
Ulysses, Doktor Faustus
Nietzsche, George Lukacs


MPAVictoria 10.26.11 at 11:37 pm

Is it too much of a cliche to say Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan?


bob mcmanus 10.26.11 at 11:43 pm

The Good Books for atheists don’t tell us what to believe, but how to think, how to see, how to feel.

The secular humanist needs a respite from her wisdom and sagacity in the bright light of maximal confusion. Like Hunter Thompson taking 100o mics once a year, “just to blow the tubes out” The problems for the intellectual secular humanist may be a) addiction to abstraction, and b) teleology, ideology, narrow-mindedness. Ulysses, for example, with its fierce naturalism and relentless perspectivism, can help us understand once a year that we don’t see anything and everything we know is wrong.

Gardening might work as well.


QB 10.26.11 at 11:59 pm

@8: Just for the non-Biblical support it provides, here’s what Google Translate does with that Rilke poem:

We did not know his outrageous head
matured to the eyeballs. but
his torso still glows like a candelabra,
where his shows, just scaled back,

to hold and shine. Otherwise the bug could not
blind you to the chest, and back at low rotation
the loins could not go a smile
at that center, which was procreation.

Otherwise this stone would stand disfigured and short
under the shoulders’ transparent fall
flickered and not as prey animal skins;

broke and not all of its edges
like a star: for there is no place
which does not see you. You must change your life.


Tony Lynch 10.27.11 at 12:19 am

Since becoming an atheist (well, an Ex-Catholic) I have returned to the Bible. Infact, I only really read it once religion dropped away. It is, I find, addictive in a way it wasn’t before. I feel like Randolph Churchill who, reading the Bible for the first time after being bribed to do so by an Evelyn Waugh desperate for a respite from his endless adolescent babble, got totally caught up in it, only pausing for the occasional rermark of admiration: “Isn’t God a shit!”


Meredith 10.27.11 at 12:21 am

I despair to think that the bible (the Hebrew, the Greek) should be overlooked simply because Christians and Jews (might I add) may often read it in distinctive ways (those readings also often being very worthwhile — why assume many might not be?). It is still a great work of literature, of wisdom, of many things.
And Homer’s Iliad. My desert island book.
And a million other things. I guess I just don’t get people who find something curious about reading novels and poems and such.


jeer9 10.27.11 at 12:28 am

It’s true that novels, even those a person greatly enjoys, are difficult to revisit as there is so much that hasn’t been read that deserves one’s attention. But shorter works I return to again and again which inspire:
“Ward Six” Chekhov
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” O’Connor
“Bartleby The Scriver” Melville
“After Apple-Picking” Frost
“Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats
“Buffalo Bill’s” Cummings


John Quiggin 10.27.11 at 12:31 am

Songs for me too, particularly in the folk/protest tradition. Right now, “This land is your land” is pretty much in tune with the times, and Chris mentioned “The banks are made of marble” the other day. Again, more sadly relevant than ever “Deportee”.


Will 10.27.11 at 12:45 am

Delicious humor substitutes. Ignacius Riley in A Confederacy of Dunces always lights me up. A.J. Leibling’s The Earl of Louisiana has priceless whole chapters. When I want to read great sentences, I reread a couple of Raymond Carver stories, a Cynthia Ozick essay – read The Impious Impatience of Job for your religious wonder – and always Prufrock. His “in the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelanglo.” These are always at hand.


js. 10.27.11 at 12:47 am

As with several other people, I suppose I rely on music more than books (heartily second Taking Tiger Mountain). That said, I do like to revisit Borges and Barthelme on a pretty regular basis—that they’re short stories helps a lot obviously. Why they’re “inspiring” is a lot more complicated; not sure I could explain it.

Also, parts of The Claim of Reason. This was esp. helpful in getting through some rough patches in grad school.


scritic 10.27.11 at 1:03 am

Alexander Nehamas’ Nietzsche: Life as Literature.


Sean 10.27.11 at 1:03 am

Nearly anything by the British Romantic poets and Whitman. And the “Preamble” to Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, especially the last few paragraphs.


vivian 10.27.11 at 1:11 am

There are things I turn to for comfort, or release, or to focus my attention, or .. not inspiration, maybe activation energy? Music yes, typically instrument only (Bach, Monk, Haydn, Coltrane, Chopin, etc.) for intellectual work, all sorts for other purposes. Nonfiction that I can read again and find just as moving – Steven J Gould, Martin Gardner, Hannah Arendt – the theme seems to be well-written essays on inherently interesting subjects. Borges fiction probably falls into this category. Blogs (not the news ones) definitely count. This is not what people do with the bible, though, is it?


Doctor Slack 10.27.11 at 1:22 am

For inspirational books, Nelson Mandela wins it in a walk for me as both author and subject. No Easy Walk to Freedom became a book after it was a Presidential address, and I see is also someone else’s pick above. Mandela: The Authorized Biography is pretty comprehensive about his life and political career and especially the chapter of history that led to the end of apartheid. When I despair about the politics of dealing with movement conservatism in North America, Mandela is a useful reminder of someone who was able to effectively come to terms with a movement (and a general dynamic) that was far worse and more unpromising in so many ways.

The World Religions Bible is an excellent anthology of scripture from a wide variety of religions, and would rank above the Bible alone as an inspirational text for me. Philosophical Taoism is probably — aside from the ambient and ubiquitous influence of Christianity as a Westerner — the religious philosophy that’s influenced me the most in daily life, so the Tao Te Ching would be on there. For thinking about politics, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War — while it may be something of an Eighties business-culture cliche — is also genuinely valuable. So is Machiavelli’s The Discourses, which can be found in packaged form with The Prince in various editions but is a far more comprehensive guide to his thought than the latter (I’ve often thought that if everyone who was accused of being “Machiavellian” was actually so in the sense of having actually read and absorbed much of what’s in The Discourses, it would be far for the better). Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was also a formative influence.


The Modesto Kid 10.27.11 at 1:48 am

When I was reading it, Pamuk’s Snow gave me the something of the feeling of revelation that I imagine a believer getting from a sacred text. That was only a few years ago, and I have not yet gone back to it.


Sarang 10.27.11 at 1:52 am

I like books that are deeply playful, bits of Joyce and Flann O’Brien for example, the prettier bits of Paradise Lost, some of Tennyson, most of Auden… I am fond of this quote from Michael Wood’s recent LRB piece about Auden: “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”


JPP 10.27.11 at 2:02 am

Meredith, The Iliad is my desert-island book, too. Well, unless it’s Borges’ collected short stories, js.


TheSophist 10.27.11 at 2:03 am

Can the mockery of my choice, The Lord of the Rings, at least be gentle?

I’ll defend it thus: believers get from the bible a source of solace, of guidance (WWJD), and of beauty. Also, for many, the very familiarity of the text weaves it somehow into the essence of their being.

I was one of those children who had read the whole trilogy (this was before there was a Silmarillion) dozens of times before reaching puberty. More recently I had tears in my eyes at several points during the movies because, to my mind, Jackson just got it so right. I find much of the prose stirring (yes, I know some of it’s wooden, but so is much of the bible), even to the point of wishing Frodo’s going into the West to be read at my (hopefully not impending) funeral. I read it for comfort and solace during my teenage years as my mother was slowly dying of cancer. It offers the possibility of what I can only describe as some sort of moral fidelity to a fictitious Event. (Recall that Badiou himself believes that the non-existence of the resurrection is no obstacle to its evental status.) I find the tragic dedication to duty and beauty inspiring.

And yes, I know full well that it’s racist, classist, sexist, and probably a couple of -ists I never noticed. What the name of that Lacanian construction that Zizek keeps referring to? – the one that goes “I know full well…but yet…”

Without The Lord of The Rings, my life would have been diminished, and maybe I would be less of a person. I am grateful for it, and to it. I think that a Christian would say all of those things about the bible.


Harold 10.27.11 at 2:23 am

Lately, Schubert Fantasy in F minor for two hands. Winterreise. Schuman Kinderszenen. Handel, “L’Allegro” or “Art Thou Troubled” (with K. Ferrier). Mozart Mass in C minor — or any other mass. Also, “A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings”. Big Bill Broonzy. I usually turn to Youtube to explore old-time country music and sacred harp.

Books: Peacock. Also Wordsworth. Edwardian novels.


William Timberman 10.27.11 at 2:29 am

Eliot’s Four Quartets, Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and Kinderkreuzzug, and from Bunting’s Sonnets, Villon. From the last mentioned, this:

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.

Worn hides that scarcely clothe the soul
they are so rotten, old and thin,
or firm and soft and warm and full —
fellmonger death gets every skin.

All that’s piteous, all that’s fair,
all that’s fat and scant of breath,
Elisha’s baldness, Helen’s hair,
is Death’s collateral:

Three score and ten years after sight
of this pay me your pulse and breath
value received. And who dare cite,
as we forgive our debtors, Death?

And this:

Homer? Adest. Dante? Adest.
Adsunt omnes, omnes et
Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,
hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies.

N.B.: Preview is acting wonky. Apologies if the formatting fails.


William Timberman 10.27.11 at 2:31 am

Yep. Paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 should follow the formatting of paragraph 2.


EM 10.27.11 at 2:45 am

I can’t claim to have read it many times, but I did use “The conquest of happiness” by Bertrand Russell during a few low points in grad school as a kind of guide for lifting the spirits. I guess that’s why I like Middlemarch (the voice), too, come to think of it. And it has enough of human nature to serve as a kind of bible.


Matt 10.27.11 at 2:51 am

I’m surprised not to see anyone mention Seneca. That might be my pick. Recently I’ve read a fair amount of Marcus Aurelius and can see how it would fit. (I was reading it because I needed a book that would fit in a jacket pocket and that could be read in small snippets and wasn’t related to anything I was working on, not for any deeper reasons, but it is really quite nice in parts, even if also quite alien.)


Tom Hurka 10.27.11 at 2:58 am

Philip Larkin’s poems, especially the beautifully miserable ones. (Well, that’s most of them.)


Greg Hays 10.27.11 at 3:09 am

Seconding Lemuel Pitkin @7.


Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Beginning of Spring”
Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”
“The Winter’s Tale”
The Ithaca chapter of “Ulysses”
“Moominvalley in November” and “Moominland Midwinter”


Josh 10.27.11 at 3:35 am

Baldwin’s “Collected Essays.”


duck-billed placelot 10.27.11 at 4:01 am

Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway is a very important book for me. As are a couple of Douglas Adams’ books – Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, in particular. Annie Dillard. Then a few mentioned here already, as well as assorted poetry (cummings springs to mind).


Don't Quote Me on That 10.27.11 at 4:43 am


Emma in Sydney 10.27.11 at 5:02 am

I’m glad someone mentioned Middlemarch. Also Jane Austen in toto, and I find great comfort in the huge baggy monsters of Anthony Trollope. Something about that omniscient narrator, perhaps?


Colin Danby 10.27.11 at 5:04 am

I’ve been working through Robert Alter’s translations and annotations of Old Testament books, which have helped me linger and think about what’s going on in them. Which I realize is the wrong answer, but I want to push back a little at the idea of “support.” Is that what religious texts are for? These texts are destabilizing as much as support-providing. Could there be an alternative question: where do you go when you’re too complacent?


Meredith 10.27.11 at 5:16 am

Colin Danby articulates what prompted my response above. The Greek and Hebrew bible(s), if it/they offer comfort: well, it’s comfort of a most challenging sort.
Alter is amazing.
I have no idea what was in Shakespeare’s heart (do I sound like the Amish grandfather in Witness? yes, I do, a bit), but I am reasonably sure that his imagination was imbued with god-li-ness (Shakespeare in Love gets that much very right). Let’s not force ourselves on others. Socrates’ last words, after all: he owed a cock to Asclepius.
Some comment above about Seneca. Yes, indeed appropriate for our times. (Scarily so.) Though he makes you work. (I got a junk email yesterday with the subject line: Effortless Learning. Who in their right mind would want that, I thought?)


Atticus Dogsbody 10.27.11 at 8:00 am

Anything that involves the Nac Mac Feegle.


Other Pete 10.27.11 at 10:03 am

From 9/11 onwards, The Secret Agent helped me keep some perspective. Four Lions now performs approximately the same function.


Neville Morley 10.27.11 at 11:19 am

As with Colin Danby (#43), the works which came immediately to mind are ones which I find endlessly provocative and worth engaging with, which seem to have changed every time I return to them after a few years’ absence, and which I can’t imagine ever running out of significance; for me, most obviously Thucydides. As far as works which I return to time and again for a kind of reassurance or comfort are concerned… Well, to be honest, I now find myself worrying about what it says about my psyche that top of the list is Georges Perec’s La Vie Mode d’Emploi, which seems to be saturated with all sorts of old-fashioned ideas about the capacity of art to transcend the messiness, absurdity and lack of coherent meaning of human existence…


Sam Clark 10.27.11 at 11:20 am

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
William Morris, News From Nowhere
Poetry by Yeats, Browning, Tennyson

I like Colin Danby’s question – where do you go when you’re too complacent? – but think that I’m more likely to seek out new books than revisit familiar ones for that. Henry James, The Golden Bowl, has been the transformative and jarring book for me this year.


Henri Vieuxtemps 10.27.11 at 12:12 pm

I like Ecclesiastes. Everything is bullshit; vanity and a chasing after wind.


Doug T 10.27.11 at 12:34 pm

I’ll second Matt’s (#35) nominations of the Stoics. Aalthough I only read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus once, the core message is still one that I return to. The little I’ve read of Taoism (the book of Chuang-Tzu) is another dourse of ideas I return to, while the original text is no longer needed.

As far as books that I’ve gone back to for guidance or support, I can think of two. The first is Wanderings by Hermann Hesse, a little book of short reflections and poetry that he wrote, which has a lot of wisdom about living packed in it. I’m lucky to have come across this obscure gem in a used book store back in my younger days. The other is Montaigne’s Essays, which incorporate a lot of the stoic ideal but leaven it with a generous dose of humanity.


Steve LaBonne 10.27.11 at 12:37 pm

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.


NotJohn 10.27.11 at 12:42 pm

The essays of Stephen J Gould.
The songs of Leonard Cohen.
And of course, the one we’re all allowed to say: the music of JS Bach
I’d also like to thank TheSophist for managing to express my feelings about LOTR so well.


straightwood 10.27.11 at 1:19 pm

Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, a Jesuitical tour de force in which a clairvoyant priest formulates a heresy that is the most brilliant prediction of man’s future ever written.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a uniquely American account of personal intellectual courage, philosophical adventure, and the deficiencies of academia.

Henry Thoreau’s Walden, the moving declarations of a profoundly honest man exploring the core of existence.

Cormack McCarthy’s Suttree, McCarthy’s masterpiece, which captures the very breath of life. It is a monumental account of absurdity, pain, and persistence that restores faith in the human spirit and the value of literature.


MPAVictoria 10.27.11 at 1:57 pm

“Anything that involves the Nac Mac Feegle.”

So good it should have been mine.

“a couple of Douglas Adams’ books – Long Dark Teatime of the Soul”

This to. A fantastic book! I just wished he had lived much longer and written many more Dirk Gently books.


Steve LaBonne 10.27.11 at 2:08 pm

As much as I love poetry, music is the art I really couldn’t live without. And none more inspiring than this.


Bartkid 10.27.11 at 2:45 pm

The Elemenets of Style
War and Peace
George Seldes’ The Great Thoughts and The Great Quotations


Substance McGravitas 10.27.11 at 2:49 pm

The Substance a poetry-kultur guy!

Hi there, only-coincidentally-fixated-on-child-molestation Catholic-apologist guy! How’s it hanging?


Dragon-King Wangchuck 10.27.11 at 3:01 pm

The Substance a poetry-kultur guy!

You should read his original works (warning NSFW). He was almost an award-winning poet laureate.


Michael Dietz 10.27.11 at 3:36 pm

Surprised Stevens hasn’t cropped up; has he fallen that far out of favor?

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet’s encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

“The World as Meditation”

Or how about Bishop:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

“At the Fishhouses”

Given that the question of death looms for all of us, whatever our beliefs, I find myself going back to elegy time and again.


Anderson 10.27.11 at 4:09 pm

Straight-up consolation or anti-depressants:

Thoreau, Walden
Emerson, “Experience”
Montaigne, “Of Experience”
Rilke, Duino Elegies

General restoration of sanity:

Stendhal’s novels
Nietzsche (esp. Gay Science, Beyond Good & Evil, Twilight of the Idols)


Anderson 10.27.11 at 4:16 pm

… 23: Alexander Nehamas’ Nietzsche: Life as Literature.

I have never quite forgiven Nehamas for dismissing N. as a “miserable little man.”


jim 10.27.11 at 4:18 pm


Anthony Hecht: Venetian Vespers, Transparent Man
John Hollander: New York, Movie-Going, From the Ramble
Stevie Smith: practically everything
Samuel Johnson: Vanity of Human Wishes


Johnson’s Rambler.


Darin London 10.27.11 at 4:26 pm

How about Chapter 5 of Howards End? “It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ears of man.”


the Third Lars 10.27.11 at 4:36 pm

I am not sure if they are a source of strength or merely comforting schadenfreude, but when things are really bad I find the various apologia of Nazi generals to be soothing…Rommel, Guderian, others I can’t remember but sitting on the shelf at home.

If I think I’ve got problems, the retreat on the Eastern front always seem to make them shrink. I can’t say I care for their politics, though.


SamChevre 10.27.11 at 4:57 pm

For comfort–really, more, the abiltiy to hang on–it’s alway’s Kipling, and almost always The Supports

Heart may fail, and Strength outwear, and Purpose turn to Loathing,
But the everyday affair of business, meals, and clothing,
Builds the bulkhead ‘twixt Despair and the Edge of Nothing.


Patrick 10.27.11 at 4:58 pm

King Lear.
Pynchon, especially Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow.
Margaret Atwood, especially Surfacing.
Miles Davis, especially Kind of Blue.
Monk and Coltrane, Live at Massey Hall.
Any number of individual poems, including this one by Joy Harjo:


Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
in a bar once in Iowa City.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war
dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.


Anderson 10.27.11 at 5:11 pm

King Lear

Boy, talk about homeopathy. I cry every time I read that damn thing.


Witt 10.27.11 at 5:13 pm

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Pablo Neruda, Love Sonnet XVII
Vaclav Havel’s speeches, especially the ones contained in The Art of the Impossible
Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney (often give this as a graduation gift)

I used to go back to Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, but haven’t looked at that as much recently. I loved Emerson and Benjamin Franklin when I read them, but haven’t gone back often.

As far as explicitly religious works, I do sometimes look at Faith and Practice, but more to dip in and out. And I love The Donkey’s Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger, but at least as much for the luminously gorgeous illustrations as the text itself.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 10.27.11 at 5:36 pm


Doug K 10.27.11 at 6:03 pm

for solace: Borges’ poetry, TS Eliot reappears though mostly in the form of the snatches I have memorized rather than rereading the books, ee cummings similarly.
for comfort: LOTR as already observed, and in general any fiction that hews to Miss Prism’s formulation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” The baggy monsters of Trollope, the douce campagna of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, the Moomins, David Lodge novels; I know it’s all merest fantasy but it provides an objective correlative for hope or at least a reasonable simulacrum of hope, enough to trick the limbic system into going on.


RBurns 10.27.11 at 6:21 pm

Russian short stories – Queen of Spades, The Stationmaster, Father Sergius, the Greatcoat
Russian Long stories – War and Peace, The Brothers Karamosov
Conrad – Youth, The Dual
Neal Stephenson – American Gods
Ramond Chandler – Trouble is my Business
Joseph Heller – Catch 22
Shakespear’s sonnets, Dylan Thomas, Richard Braudigan


RBurns 10.27.11 at 6:21 pm

Oh, and Rabby Burns.


Donald A. Coffin 10.27.11 at 6:26 pm

To read, poetry. Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Charles Wright, Billy Collins, Japanese poetry in translation (Basho, especially Issa, Akiko), and more that I am forgetting.

Music, especially jazz. John Coltrane (A Love Supreme more than anything else, I think), Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, the 1964 Carnegie Hall concert),Thelonius Monk, Charles Lloyd (since he passed age 60, mostly), Frank Morgan, Wynton Marsalis’s concerto-like work, Cannonball Adderly, Herbie Hancock, the list goes on and on. Some classical–Beethoven’s quartets, Bach’s fugues, Mozart’s late symphonies, Aaron Copeland, Steve Reich, Kronos Quartet (to go beyond composers to performers)…


Bruce Sharp 10.27.11 at 6:52 pm

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. I’ve never understood all the praise heaped on The Little Prince, but Wind, Sand and Stars is a work of breathtaking beauty.


Colette 10.27.11 at 7:04 pm

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Tennyson’s poetry (I know, not in fashion, to say the least).

For escape: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles novels. When this world is unbearable, hers is reliably fascinating.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 10.27.11 at 7:08 pm

YouTube videos with “… gone wrong” in their titles.


Frank in midtown 10.27.11 at 7:11 pm

My father and my mother, W. Whitman Leaves of Grass.


TheSophist 10.27.11 at 7:12 pm

Pedantry intrudes: American Gods is Gaiman, not Stephenson


Jonathan Mayhew 10.27.11 at 7:24 pm

As a specialist in poetry, I can gain solace from my daily work; in personal terms I turn most often to Robert Creeley.


Dragon-King Wangchuck 10.27.11 at 7:42 pm

A lot of interesting suggestions, but I maintain that you’ll not find a bettar and moar poignant picture of teh human condition than in teh collection of YouTube videos with “… gone wrong” in their titles. Although I’m not sure how one would go about swearing an oath on one.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.27.11 at 7:50 pm

What a delightful set of posts! And we should share poetry more often! :-)

Just after posting last night and just before falling asleep, I did come up with a few more things, especially films: there are two types of films that I also return to, one about (the meaning of) ‘Life’, and the other about Justice/Politics; ‘Himmel über Berlin’ would fall in the first category, and ‘Cry Freedom’ (and most of what Ken Loach did) in the latter.

And I probably was too pessimistic about non-fiction too; only two weeks ago I re-re-read ‘The cost of Living’ by Arundhati Roy, – but then again, that is such a short book (an essay, really), that it could be on a website too.

Autobiographies can do the trick too – I haven’t read JS Mill’s, which was mentioned, which sounds like a great idea. But in those cases it’s more that I keep thinking about, and remembering, what i read – without physically returning to the book.

And yes, Brecht, and Le petit prince… and Master and Margarita (but that one has the Bible -sort of- weaved in, so it’s bending the rules of the game). I also read an excellent biography of Bulgakov (called ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’ – though I read it in Dutch), which makes one read MM very differently, and makes it much more powerful.

Colin (and others) are right that an important question is what one needs ‘this book’ for – different books/media for different purposes (the same in fact with poetry – there is also ‘life poetry’ but also lots of ‘political poetry’ (the many wonderful Amnesty International collections, for example).


Steve LaBonne 10.27.11 at 7:50 pm

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.


Matt McIrvin 10.27.11 at 8:24 pm

Once I crashed my car immediately before my wife and I left on our honeymoon (which had been delayed by a series of stressful business trips), to a B&B near Seattle. When we got there, with me still wracked with guilt over wrecking the car, we got some horrible flu that incapacitated us both for a couple of days. I spent the time reading a big stack of Terry Pratchett books that my wife had brought along. It worked pretty well.


Meredith 10.27.11 at 8:29 pm

If it’s very personal solace — grief for loved ones who die, say — or for other afflictions or turbulations of the soul, Emily Dickinson. Must get her name on record her.
That’s when you’re ready for words — I agree with many others here, music first.
For solace and uplift at the intersection of the personal and the public/political, and if we’re thinking movies, too, I can’t think of a better one than Local Hero. Close second, though very different, would be Gods and Monsters.


john c. halasz 10.27.11 at 8:29 pm

Meet @51 & 82.


Jan Marien 10.27.11 at 9:03 pm

One should remember that the bible is a collection of different books, stories, poems, etc, written by several people over a very long period. 
So, composing a new bible for atheists or just for people living in today’s complicated world, would mean putting together a new canon. Some books might get a permanent role in the canon, others might come and go, as happened to the real bible. 
I found some fine ideas in the above discussion, but I think no one mentioned George Orwell. For me, at least Nineteen Eighty-four should be part of any new bible, and I’d add several of his essays. 
Other proposals would be: José Saramago, for instance Blindness, and the poetry of Neruda (Canto General, Sonetos de amor). 
And what about Max Frisch: Gantenbein. There is so much. 


Phil 10.27.11 at 9:07 pm

I second Stevens, definitely, and Emily Dickinson (for really dark times), and the Moomins. Forgot to mention Paul Auster (up to the Music of Chance and, sadly, no further).

I wasn’t quite sure how my first comment would look – the phrase “howlingly pretentious” crossed my mind – so I’m glad that so many other commenters have found solace and inspiration in Stevens, Borges and equally unyielding writers (I might also mention Bach). There’s a poetics of bafflement, I think – sometimes the most comforting thing you can hear is “no, this world absolutely does not make sense“, particularly when it’s said clearly and beautifully.


Harold 10.27.11 at 9:49 pm

No Orwell in the Bible, please! Oy!


Salient 10.27.11 at 9:58 pm

Ha, as I saw this thread my first thought was, “Henri would pick Ecclesiastes.” Pleased to have been right!

Meant to add — for diversion, Oscar Wilde stuff. For whatever the opposite of diversion is–a particular kind of reflective engagement, sketches-on-a-chalkboard sweeposity — Thomas Geoghegan’s quasiautobiographic stuff and miscellany by Doris Lessing. For encouragement and to revive a spirit of playful inventiveness, Freeman Dyson stuff. For inspiration and energy, and a definition-by-example of what ‘moral force’ is, various letters/essays/notebooks/hell-I’d-read-napkin-scrawls by Albert Camus (harder and more expensive to find and discover than they should be, but at least the collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death is still in print).

{…yes, the Easter egg in this comment is intentional.}


Barry Freed 10.27.11 at 10:01 pm

This is a great thread and unfortunately I am be too busy to read all of it right now but I want to thank Phil up top for Tom Phillips’s A Humument which I had not heard of and looks wonderful. I also look on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) similarly, in fact the eject function of my CD in my car has been getting all wonky and is about to go and I just want to make sure that that is the CD that finally and irrevocably gets stuck in there. And sometimes I’ve approached Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as like the I Ching, sometimes it’s had that quality for me – oracular.


Zora 10.27.11 at 10:43 pm

Books of comfort and inspiration, not overtly religious:

John McPhee, The Control of Nature
John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
George Eliot, Middlemarch


Bill Benzon 10.27.11 at 10:48 pm

Over the last two or three years I’ve returned again and again to the films of Hayao Miyazaki, all of them, but particularly Porco Rosso, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle.


Emma in Sydney 10.27.11 at 11:40 pm

Bill Benzon, I agree. Also Spirited Away, although My Neighbour Totoro is my favourite, and gives comfort to people aged from 3 to 53 (at least). Which is a plus. We can all return to it together.


ben in el cajon 10.27.11 at 11:45 pm

So, religious texts serve many purposes:

For pouring over minutia to decode in a sort of mystical confusion, I prefer Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”

For sympathy (learning or receiving), I recommend Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Joyce’s “The Dead”.

For moral education, fantasy literature, which forms the core of all scripture anyway, is key. I like most of it, from Pratchett and Gaiman to Lewis and Tolkein, but I especially appreciate the Harry Potter series, as it presents a world in which love, sacrifice, and goodness prevail out of nothing.


Kaveh 10.28.11 at 12:59 am

The paintings of Bada Shanren, ever since I discovered them on the internet around the end of 1996.


Wanderer 10.28.11 at 1:11 am

All great suggestions, folks, but for me it is entire traditions that inspire as much as individual works–for instance the tradition of Romantic and Victorian literature in English, for instance, or the tradition of progressive thought, creativity, and action. Admittedly, this is not as readily accessible as a single sacred or privileged text, but then the great diversity and richness of various traditions has great strengths as well.


tomslee 10.28.11 at 1:35 am

Nothing to contribute, but lots to take away. Thanks everyone for the suggestions.


Lee A. Arnold 10.28.11 at 1:41 am

The Four Noble Truths. Not theist. Milton, Wordsworth. Bach, Schubert, Scriabin. Celer.


Mercy 10.28.11 at 2:07 am

Surely picking a work of fiction is asking what’s the atheist equivalent of what the Bible is to atheists, ditto for selecting, like Grayling does, a synthetic cannon- the whole point is that it’s not synthetic! The reason the Gospel and so on are important to Christians is because they think it really happened, which allows them to act as a greater source of inspiration and hope than fiction can provide, and the proverbs, poems and so on gain a resonance from being in some sense written by the same author.

Anyway there’s a certain pleasing symmetry in saying that an atheist’s bible is the biography and collected works of a mortal hero. To mangle Dawkins, the opposite of believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden is to appreciate the garden for itself, not to appreciate the story of the fairies without believing in it.


Gene O'Grady 10.28.11 at 3:09 am

I haven’t read all the comments, so I apologize if I’m repeating, but this is a very 19th century question, asked by people like Matthew Arnold and George Eliot and (I think) J S Mill. The answers tended to be Goethe (I guess Rosa Luxemburg would have agreed) and English poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge — of course they were looking to get beyond not merely the Bible but Byron.


bad Jim 10.28.11 at 4:14 am

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost–the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?

And also Beethoven’s 9th symphony (as well as the late quartets, and Schubert & Schumann &c), most especially

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt


mclaren 10.28.11 at 4:43 am

A three-way tie twixt Goethe’s Faust in the original German (no English translation lives up to the original), the collected poems of Emily Dickinson, or the collected (that is to say, surviving) poems of Sappho.


grackle 10.28.11 at 5:24 am

Gurdjieff’s All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson


sbk 10.28.11 at 6:07 am

Right, the “secular Bible” and “literature as solace” questions are subtly different things. A list of books I go to for solace is basically the list of my favorite books — that’s what constitutes a “favorite” for me. But there are different kinds of solace, and the kind that derives from wisdom or a sense of rightness, good judgment, good form in the broadest sense, is probably the closest to the specifically consolatory function of a secular Bible. For me, the favorites are a weird set: just about everything Robert Musil ever wrote; James Tiptree, Jr.’s Star Songs of an Old Primate; the Divine Comedy; “East Coker”; To the Lighthouse; The Death of Ivan Ilyich; The Castle; many more… Most comic writing about the bleakness of life, so universally renowned for providing solace, depresses the bejesus out of me.

I was also very comforted by the discussion of extinctions (i.e., the end of all known earthly life forms) in The Beak of the Finch.


dbk 10.28.11 at 6:46 am

Yes, a wonderful thread!
Books I return to often: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Music: Christy Moore; Theodorakis and Manos Loizos; lately I’ve discovered a group called Great Big Sea. Also Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen.
Films: Serpico.
Shakespeare: The Tempest


Torquil Macneil 10.28.11 at 8:24 am

I think the idea of books ‘provid[ing] support’ is a pretty deadly one, killing for literature, but it is fun to read bits and pieces of people’s favourite poetry which is how the tread has turned out. I second Tohm Hurka’s choice of Larking and would add Edward Thomas who is similar to Larkin in lots of ways, just as direct and intimate, but with a very different emotional resonance. Here’s one which I prefer to all other WWI poems:

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.


reason 10.28.11 at 8:28 am

A Green History of the World.


Aspen Blue 10.28.11 at 8:36 am

Reading: DeLillo’s White Noise and C. K. Williams’ poetry

Music: John Fahey

Film: Tsai’s Vive L’amour


a.y.mous 10.28.11 at 9:35 am

In order of frequency and importance

1) http://savitrithepoem.com/

He shared with a dumb Spirit identity.
He beheld the cosmic Being at his task,
His eyes measured the spaces, gauged the depths,
His inner gaze the movements of the soul,
He saw the eternal labour of the Gods,
And looked upon the life of beasts and men.
A change now fell upon the singer’s mood,
A rapture and a pathos moved his voice;
He sang no more of Light that never wanes,
And oneness and pure everlasting bliss,
He sang no more the deathless heart of Love,
His chant was a hymn of Ignorance and Fate.
He sang the name of Vishnu and the birth
And joy and passion of the mystic world,
And how the stars were made and life began
And the mute regions stirred with the throb of a Soul.
He sang the Inconscient and its secret self,
Its power omnipotent knowing not what it does,
All-shaping without will or thought or sense,
Its blind unerring occult mystery,
And darkness yearning towards the eternal Light,
And Love that broods within the dim abyss
And waits the answer of the human heart,
And death that climbs to immortality.
He sang of the Truth that cries from Night’s blind deeps,
And the Mother-Wisdom hid in Nature’s breast
And the Idea that through her dumbness works
And the miracle of her transforming hands,
Of life that slumbers in the stone and sun
And Mind subliminal in mindless life,
And the Consciousness that wakes in beasts and men.
He sang of the glory and marvel still to be born,
Of Godhead throwing off at last its veil,
Of bodies made divine and life made bliss,
Immortal sweetness clasping immortal might,
Heart sensing heart, thought looking straight at thought,

2) Power, In Praise of Idleness – Bertrand Russell

3) Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám – Not just FitzGerald’s translations. Others’, particularly McCarthy’s are quite often better.

4) Robert Graves – Almost all his works, I’ve revisited many a time. The one most often is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Jesus

5) Baudolino, Umberto Eco

Yes. I’m a historical fiction nut.


Henry 10.28.11 at 11:05 am

Asked about it, who would not repent
Of all he ever did and never meant,
And think a life and its distresses,
Its random, clutched-for, homefelt blisses,
The circumstances of an accident?

Randall Jarrell, “A Country Life”


Steve LaBonne 10.28.11 at 12:01 pm


Barry Freed 10.28.11 at 12:43 pm

Ok, in addition to what I’ve mentioned above – or rather seconded, for too much of this thread I could just go “me too, me too!” and the rest I’m busy jotting down,

Poetry: Rumi, Hafez and Sa’di, preferably in my now very rusty Persian. (There are some decent non new-agey translations of Rumi, but English can never approach the Persian).

Film: Tarkovsky; “The President’s Analyst”; probably too many more to mention. Someone mentioned Miyazaki above, for anime (not a movie though), FLCL.

Music: I smile whenever I hear Eric Dolphy; also Love’s “Forever Changes;” The Harry Smith compilation known as the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music (which is every American’s birthright); Patti Smith’s “Horses;” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange;” and a whole lotta Johnny Cash.


Glen Tomkins 10.28.11 at 1:41 pm

You look to books for the truth, not support. The truth is invariably anti-supportive. That’s the whole point of the truth, after all.

The Bible, if you actually read it, would be a very odd book to look to for support. Which is why religions based on it have as their main task the prevention of anyone actually reading the thing with any sort of open mind. Its exclusion from this project is an indicator of one type of success in that effort, in that it is an example of the success of Christian religions at getting the unindoctrinated to dismiss the Bible.


John 10.28.11 at 2:23 pm

“You look to books for the truth, not support”

“The truth is invariably anti-supportive”

I dont know why you accept these two statements as so self evidently correct.


between4walls 10.28.11 at 2:42 pm

The exhortation to the mariners in Tennyson’s Ulysses.

“Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

The Young Unicorns by Madeline L’Engle. The Book of Job. Bits and pieces of Philip Pullman’s books. A few Yeats poems (especially Easter 1916 and On a Political Prisoner).


Western Dave 10.28.11 at 2:43 pm

When I was at a very tricky point in my life, an unplanned third child on the way, financial collapse in my wife’s business, at risk of getting fired at my job, I found great comfort in Harry Potter (stop snickering, when you’re desperately trying to keep your shit together, small words and simple plots are a bonus). Reminding myself to act like Cedric Diggory from book 4 helped me keep my temper, my job, and my marriage.

In less desperate and more reflective times:

The Bible: (Old and New Testament even though I grew up Jewish and am currently unchurched). I teach it parts of it every year in my Ancient World class and it never fails to astound me.

Shakespeare plays: All the usual suspects here.

Graham Swift’s novel Waterland. I read this one about every 5 years or so.

Richard White’s brief history of the Columbia River: The Organic Machine.

Through college I would have said Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang but as my perspective widened my enthusiasm faded.

Classic country music (and it’s modern day equivalents – Iris Dement – for example) in my darkest hours is a great comfort. Late punk and new wave for my angry moments (The Jam, Talking Heads, early U2, Midnight Oil – the music of my lost youth).


Western Dave 10.28.11 at 2:47 pm

One more: Alessandro Portelli: The Death of Luigi Trastulli in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories. Never has a work so profoundly reshaped the way I think about the world. I’ve started teaching it again recently and it blew me away all over again. (It’s about collective memory and history and how and why we remember things the way we do – originally read it as part of my training in oral history but it comes in handy all the time).


William Timberman 10.28.11 at 3:19 pm

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The last line especially….deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired. And there’s gotta be some Blake — a lot of Blake in these days when we find ourselves surrounded by so many sleepwalkers.


Steve LaBonne 10.28.11 at 3:22 pm


Glen Tomkins 10.28.11 at 4:31 pm


Well, as for the proposition that you look to books for truth rather than support, obviously, insofar as you admit that the two may fail to coincide, to decide to choose words that are comforting rather than true is to engage in transparent self-deception. That transparency defeats the project of choosing support over truth, because if you know you’ve chosen comforting lies, that itself removes any comfort and support the lies might provide, plus it saddles you with the consiousness of yet another example of your own stupidity and weakness.

That leaves the proposition that the truth is invariably anti-supportive, that it systematically afflicts and undermines, rather than comforts and supports. Here we are indeed at a question of faith, as it were, and I can’t dispose of this objection of yours as logical inconsistency, as I could your first objection. Or perhaps, to put it more inclusively, your first objection only makes sense if it is simply your second objection stated in a less direct form. If you start from the assumption that the project of setting out to find comfort and support in the truth is one that can achieve success, then it is certainly true that you might indeed set out to find comfort in books, because you believe that you can leave your BS detectors fully operational, and at least some comforting things you read will survive the test and prove as true as they are supportive. “Not all that glitters is gold.”, so to speak, and many comforting things will prove deceptive, but that hardly means that there is nothing that both glitters with comfort, and is also the gold of truth.

But, of course, what Shakespeare actually wrote, and it is admittedly a hard teaching, is that, “All that glitters is not gold.” Nothing that is supportive is true. To cite another hard teaching, or perhaps the same hard teaching in another form, what Jesus says about spiritual riches is that to those who already have much, more will be given, but those who have little will have even that taken from them.

This really is a matter of axioms, so it’s not as if there is any way you could be convinced that I am right by some argument, or that you, if you truly believe that some things that glitter are gold, can be convinced that I am right. But I think it is worth formulating as clearly as possible these axioms we live by.

And, just to make my seemingly anti-social creed a little more accessible, if not convincing, think of it in terms of perspective. No matter how wise and generous we might be, all of us are stuck in a universe of experience in which we are the absolute and sole center. But the truth, which I think you will admit unless you are a solipsist, is that we are absolutely not the center of anything. We are quite contingent. There was a universe here before we existed, there will be one after we’re gone, and even during this brief period when we are around, that universe would function quite well without us.

Of course there’s nothing terribly disquieting about this Copernican dethronement of the ego as expressed in the abstract. We all have to stop being practical solipsists some time around age 2 0r 3 in order to successfully navigate an outside world that really would squish us like bugs unless we followed its rules rather than live as if things were arranged entirely as we would like, and we lived in a magic world in which we merely had to wish to make things happen. It’s not as if you have to achieve Buddha nature to get to the point of following the world’s rules in order to exploit them to maximize your comfort. That’s a trick we all master by age 2 or 3.

What you don’t have to do to get by is take this Copernican dethronement of your ego any further than just getting by. My idea is that truth and comfort battle it out as categorical enemies in that zone beyond merely getting by. Nothing that reassures you that you are the center of the universe is at all true, because that is simply not true. And anything that tends to the realization of the truth that you are not the center of the universe, and takes that realization past the minimum it has to attain in order for you to get by, is not going to be comforting. Where we have not completed our own individual Copernican revolutions and attained complete selflessness, there we find the truth undermining and obnoxious, but it is only there that we find any truth.


Back in New Haven 10.28.11 at 4:31 pm

Stevens, and in particular “Sunday Morning,” which is about this very topic.


Matt McIrvin 10.28.11 at 6:07 pm

I have to admit, lately when I’m feeling down I have more of a tendency to seek out stuff on the Web that makes me feel even worse (mostly expressions of political outrage), on similar grounds that the truth is basically uncomfortable and there’s something unseemly about consuming information that makes you feel good.

But actively seeking discomfort in this way doesn’t actually seem to help any: doesn’t help me understand the world and doesn’t help me get motivated to do useful things. And anguished rants maximized for discomfort can actually be as ridiculous as anything that’s soothing. On balance, backing off and recharging with something pleasant might be better for the perception of reality in the long term.


Matt McIrvin 10.28.11 at 6:11 pm

…Though I’m also not sure that Copernican revelations about one’s non-centrality are necessarily unpleasant. These days the things that scare me the most tend to have to do with morals and values, and the idea that everything I do might be somehow evil or destructive. Remembering that I’m mortal, tiny and not that important is actually kind of comforting in that light.


Salient 10.28.11 at 8:20 pm

Hopefully it’s ok to interpret “people” sufficiently broadly to include stuff like webcomics. The conclusion of the Phillipe thread in Achewood was weirdly poignant for me (not least because it was the last cohesive and complete storyline in Achewood). And in terms of the sheer number of times I’ve returned to an item for inspiration and solace per time unit, nothing much compares to the xkcd with zombie Marie Antoinette. (This is cheating the chosen metric a little, because it’s printed out over my monitor at work. But still.)

A quick argument for why including comics/webcomics seems fair. A comic combines the full cognitive engagement of text with the gestalt instantaneous recognition of static visual art, so it’s a uniquely well-positioned format to convey emotional relief. (Which just makes the nearly comprehensive fail of Hallmark cards, whose insert passages are uniformly wincing-cringe-inducing, all the more astonishing. When scholars generations hence look back on us, they’ll comment drily on our apparent inability or unwillingness to match the poetry of our epoch’s best writers to the visuals of our epoch’s best artists and then mass-produce them on cardstock. If you’re commissioning a couplet or sonnet to pair with a ‘get well soon’ or ‘congratulations on your achievement,’ you’re doing it wrong.) It’s nice to be able to instantly reabsorb the image and allow the text to be recalled to mind, with gaps of words already filling in.

It’s much easier (for me at least) to imprint an extended block of poetry into memory by superimposing each stanza on a readily identifiable and coherently related image, rather than memorize the sound or syllables themselves. (Fair warning though, this led me to memorize sweet is the sleep of hand-to-hand, sweeter still the sleep of heart-to-heart while completely forgetting its context. Of the various questions one’s future in-laws can ask on a first visit, there’s few more panic-inducing than “last night on your way to bed, were you quoting Sumerian fertility poetry to me?” … Uh. … “Just wanted to check if you two had news for us.” Dislodged quotation snippets are dangerous in the era of google.)


Mrs Tilton 10.28.11 at 9:10 pm

I think the only books that offer me real philosophical comfort are those explaining how the universe will, one happy day, achieve heat-death.

But Cthulhu bless you, dear Ingrid, for the beautiful quotation from Nazim Hikmet. That German version hangs on the wall of an excellent Turkish restaurant here. (I suspect, on the basis of the many images of Pir Sultan Abdal they display, that the proprietors are Alevis. These are the Quakers of the Islamic world and one of the few forms of religion I do not utterly abhor. They are about 20% of the population in Turkey but disproportionately represented in the German diaspora. They were despised outcasts in Ottoman days and, sadly, to some extent remain so despite Mustafa Kemal’s efforts to geld religion. Nazim’s communism made him, too, an outcast despite his Osmanlı BCBG background.)

For those with no German, Nazim’s text might be Englished as

To live, like a tree, alone and free
And, like the forest, to brothers and sisters bound:
for this we ache.

Another remarkable Turkish poet, though one from a far humbler background, is Aşık Veysel ÅžatıroÄŸlu. One of his best-known songs, Uzun ince bir yoldayım, is a perfect synthesis of disillusionment, resignation and serenity. Here’s my attempt at the first verse:

I walk a long and narrow road;
I walk all day, I walk all night.
I don’t know what my fate may hold;
I walk all day, I walk all night.

Apologies. I am no poet; learn Turkish.


Mrs Tilton 10.28.11 at 9:22 pm

Also: pretty much anything by Beckett, even the remote later stuff. Reading Malone meurt cured my first major depressive episode, though if I am unsentimental I should concede that the fact I found it funny (and, frankly, the fact I could muster the energy to read it) meant I was already well on the way to remission.

Also, too: though it’s cheating because it’s the bible, sort of: Stephen Mitchell’s version of Job. And let us not forget King James’s version of Ecclesiastes. That Qohelet was a pretty wise man, for a god-botherer.


trane 10.28.11 at 9:39 pm

Wonderful post.

For poetry, this:


into a truly
curving form
enters my

feels all small
facts dissolved
by the lewd guess
of fabulous immensity

the sky screamed
the sun died)
the ship lifts
on seas of iron

breathing height eating
steepness the
ship climbs
murmuring silver mountains

was night

and through only this night a
mightily form moves
whose passenger and whose
pilot my spirit is

(e.e. cummings /no thanks)


Blows me away every time I read it.

For politics/morals in a novel, I really like and have been moved by Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, as well as Vonnegut’s Jailbird.


trane 10.28.11 at 9:55 pm

A suggestion for a follow-up post, maybe when we enter December:

Maybe Ingrid could ask the good people and readers of Crooked Timber to come up with translations of their favorite native language poem.

@ a.y.mous at 109:
I have only read one translation of Rubaiyat, and that is by Frank Kuppner, based on le Gallienne (In a Persian Garden) in Kuppner’s Everything is Strange, a wonderful book of poetry!

A few examples
Ah, Dawn is here! And, like a morning star,
The Sultan’s palace glitters from afar.
No false mirage of morning, fair as dreams;
But stone, recalling us to what we are.

For some have luck, some gold, and some have fame.
But we have nothing, least of all a name.
Nothing but wine. That is, nothing but heaven.
The purest fire burns with the slightest flame.

(Favorite first to lines in the one below)…
Drunkards! So be it yet, if all were wise,
All would be drunk like us, with dazzling eyes.
Poor sober world, day-long in misery.
Leave mosque and mart – come: join our Paradise.

I am not fit for hell – I am too small.
Eternity can have no cause to call
On such an insignificance as me.
I am too poor a prey for it to maul.



eilis 10.28.11 at 10:52 pm

Totally off topic – well, off intended topic – I logged on to see the title ‘Poetry and People’ and was convinced it was a thread about the fabulous, victorious, Michael D. Higgins, President elect of Ireland. Comhghairdeachas, a hÚachtaráin.


Meredith 10.28.11 at 11:47 pm

Noting with delight the variety of poetry and other literature or novels or movies being cited here (must say, so wonderful to be reminded of Rumi and one of the world’s great gifts, Pharsi (in general) and Persian poetry specifically (even in translations, no doubt most second-rate: the sense of longing that in itself becomes the beauty it longs for — I can only compare Sappho, Homer, Stevens and Louise Gluck and Merwin (did someone actually mention him, or am I imagining it?) — well, many others too — at certain moments), and Turkish! (never though about it much before — now I’m enticed, being seduced), and Erse (boy, what a damnably hard language! would be worth the effort, though)…. All this desire! Is that why we put our faith in the young? Their desire, their yearning? (Ours too, but it’s different now….)


sam b 10.29.11 at 2:07 am

Victor Serge – Unforgiving Years or The Case of Comrade Tulayev (even a few of his poems). He makes moral integrity seem both possible and important, and I can’t think of a more astonishing witness of 20thC history. Very good for retaining some perspective.

the middle chapters of Amulet by Roberto Bolano (or chunks of 2666, or The Skating Rink)


Jeff 10.29.11 at 5:03 am


‘Who rules here?’
I asked.
They said:
‘The people naturally.’

I said
‘Naturally the people
but who
really rules?”

—Erich Fried


Ingrid Robeyns 10.29.11 at 7:02 am

Trane (@128): Will do, great suggestion! You can all start translating… :-)
Actually, what I like most, is to see those poems in two languages – the original and the translated. There are languages where one’s knowledge isn’t good enough to (always) read the original, but reading the original side-by-side with the translation gives one much more than merely the original (for me, poems in Spanish are like this).


Anca 10.29.11 at 11:11 am

The Idiot.


Alison P 10.29.11 at 11:56 am

I was reading an interview with Michael Sheen, who is playing Hamlet in London shortly. He commented that Hamlet has an organic responsive quality, which renews itself with each interpretation, replying to whatever question we put to it. This seemingly inexhaustible fecundity is a real feature of Shakespeare, and I also find it in Yeats or Tennyson, stodgy as he might be, and well – many others. Eliot. Gawain and the Green Knight does it for me. Each person finds in it something that speaks to them.

My point isn’t to list the texts, but to say that I do not understand how this infinite solace can flow from finite texts, and yet I see it flowing out. I think this is something in life which goes beyond my brain’s capacity to understand. However, recognising it without understanding it, that is my touchstone for the type of text I think we are discussing here.

Also – yes, if they are not in English then I feel an urge to translate texts like this for myself, if I possibly can – perhaps when somebody else’s translation tantalises me. I want to reconstruct it for myself.


floopmeister 10.29.11 at 12:07 pm

Camus’ The Rebel

Junger’s On the Marble Cliffs

Nietszche’s Ecce Homo helped me through cancer…

Any non-fiction histories of Rome, Byzantium or early Islam.

Classical Indian ragas, Sigur Ros and Scandinavian jazz.

Finally, any Lonely Planet guidebook gives me great solace when I flick through it.


Natilo Paennim 10.29.11 at 3:02 pm

I’ve always kinda wondered what it is that people find in their religious text of choice. The strength to keep going? The will to keep fighting? The solace of imagining something more significant than their own little vista? If those are what’s at stake, here’s my list:

You Can’t Win, Jack Black
Ringolevio, Emmett Grogan
A rebours, J.K. Huysmans

CRASS, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Solidarity Forever, The Internationale

Nanao Sakaki, specifically:

If you have time to chatter,
Read a book.
If you have time to read,
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean.
If you have time to walk,
sing songs and dance.
If you have time to dance,
Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot.

Kyoto, 1966


ForestDweller 10.29.11 at 4:19 pm

I’ll second (Quaker) Faith and Practice as a source of great passages for me, anyway. And
“Plain Living” by Catherine Whitmire. I used to browse Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”
as a kind of Bible; while it doesn’t cover all of life, it outlines an utopia much more compelling than any fictional utopia.

Also Whitman. For some strange reason I used to find “Three Poems” by John Ashbery soothing, maybe the poetic equivalent of those CDs of babbling brooks and meadows that used to be popular. Dickinson. As a teenager Thoreau and Aldo Leopald (and, um, Tolkien). I couldn’t stand Thoreau’s voice when I tried re-reading Walden a while back though.

For shaking me up? Chekhov stories. I can only take so much shaking at one time, so I can’t read them very often.


bob mcmanus 10.29.11 at 10:38 pm

” But here it is the use we have for the medium that determines which aspects of the me­dium are relevant , and not the medium that determines the use . ” …Noel Carroll

or text.

Once you know you can find solace in the phonebook as well as in the poetry Wallace Stevens, that what a text gives is only what you are expecting, what you bring to the text, can you find solace anymore in a text? Or can you find it in every text?

135: but to say that I do not understand how this infinite solace can flow from finite texts

It obviously cannot, so the infinitude is not in the texts.


bexley 10.29.11 at 11:57 pm

I always find lighthearted fiction always helps provide support. In particular:

The Ukridge stories and the Clicking of Cuthbert by Wodehouse.
Jasper Fforde
Douglas Adams
Prattchett that doesn’t get too too preachy


Alan 10.30.11 at 3:55 am

Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ann Sexton, Louise Gluck. There should be a secular canon, and I would urge these authors be included.


Alison P 10.30.11 at 7:28 am

Bob I agree with you, the solace must be something which we make from the poem. Like a stone in the mouth stimulates saliva – you can’t extract infinite moisture from a stone, and yet it is never used up. But some poems stimulate the response better than others, for some reason. I think it’s a mistake to say any set of words could do it just as well. If that were the case I think the choices in this thread would be completely randomised.


mrearl 10.31.11 at 6:10 pm

Raymond Chandler. Marlowe’s a genuine existentialist, in that he doesn’t know he is one.


Pyre 10.31.11 at 10:53 pm

Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)

Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet — particularly the section with this passage:

“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginnings of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses: perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

Diane Duane, So You Want To Be A Wizard (et seq.) — the Wizard’s Oath.


Phil C. 11.01.11 at 11:00 pm

The discworld series by Terry Pratchett

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