I hate Christmas.
There, I said it.
The year-end holiday season always makes me feel lonely even before December rolls around. As much as I would loathe anyone to feel the same, I take comfort that I am not alone. The festive season is known to trigger increased loneliness, sorrow, anxiety, and various depressive disorders. The posturing on social media doesn’t help either.
The only solution—besides sleeping—that I’ve found to be truly effective at easing the festive funk is reading. A good book can take me on a journey that lasts several hours, leaving me thoroughly mentally and emotionally stretched in the best way. It also serves as a worthwhile distraction from the seasonal blues.
Perhaps, most importantly, it leaves me feeling less alone as per my favourite James Baldwin quote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
But I don’t need to flip pages to immerse myself in another world. As I’ve observed, Christmas mornings tend to be bright and sunny, so I like to take long walks around the neighbourhood to counter the unavoidable melancholy first thing in the day. During these few hours, Storytel’s audiobooks become my best friend. Two birds, one stone, and all that jazz.
Here are some of the worlds I’ve sought comfort in. There is space for you too.
In my almost three decades of being alive, few books have fundamentally shaped the core of who I am like Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The book’s central thrust lies in the notion that having the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead.
Prior to watching Brené’s famous TED talk about the power of vulnerability, which forms the essence of the book, I understood vulnerability as weakness. I reasoned that revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings was akin to laying all your cards on the table which could only lead to getting hurt, and was thus a foolish endeavour.
On the contrary, Brené argues, vulnerability is a strength. Being willing to reveal your true self without any guarantee of being seen, heard, or accepted is the definition of courage. This means you give without expecting anything in return, but solely because you want to.
The best part is the audiobook is narrated by Brené herself, whose deep, reassuring voice reminds me of the therapist everyone needs: kind, assertive, and ever ready to inject a massive serving of tough love. In fact, listening to Daring Greatly during the festive season might single-handedly lift your mental fog, provide clarity, and haul you out of the doldrums for the next few years. FYI, that’s an understatement.
Sometimes, nothing feels better than the self-indulgence of wallowing. But while you might want to cry, you’re not always able to muster the tears, as though a stone has sunk in your chest. This feeling of being ‘stuck’ makes me want to claw my heart out just to feel some semblance of pain.
Enter A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara—the only book to ever make me cry. It’s unusual that a book so seamlessly weaves in so much of what I look for in a captivating story: friendship, dark secrets, trauma, ambition, addiction, pride, and New York City. But all the synopses in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the twist when I discovered the meaning behind the title.
I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say this: every person I know who has read the book was also blindsided by the gut punch that will leave you reeling long after you finish the book. At the end of the 33-hour narration on Storytel, you too might feel heavy with grief, as though these fictional characters were your friends. Then you might slowly set aside your earphones, burrow your face into your pillow, and sob long and hard, as I did.
Ironically, I felt replenished after I was done. A Little Life was the literary experience I never knew I needed—something that annihilated everything I thought I knew about how books could make me feel, so I could begin to redefine my emotional expectations of literature from scratch. No book has lived up since.
As the proverb goes, an idle brain is the devil’s workshop. Seasonal depression can easily trigger an avalanche of negative thoughts and feelings, since it renders you unwilling—and sometimes, incapable—to do anything except isolate yourself in bed. But doing so usually just perpetuates the cycle of bad thoughts.
In recent years, I’ve realised that keeping these thoughts at bay requires me to keep my mind occupied with cognitive exercises. Namely, expanding my brain power on topics which author and modern philosopher, Alain de Botton, espouses.
Take, for instance, his book, Status Anxiety. He discusses the intrinsically human desire to succeed and the accompanying fear of failure, and how these affect the ways we believe others perceive us. Through the lenses of history, art, politics, economics, and philosophy, he presents possible solutions to our worries of keeping up with the
Joneses Kardashians—a perfect antidote to the specific anxieties born from social media.
As someone who’s read all of Alain de Botton’s books, and even once flew down to Hongkong just to watch him speak at a conference, Status Anxiety is at once revelatory and necessary. His works have quenched my thirst for knowledge, enlightenment, and self-awareness, more than 15 years in the education system ever accomplished. His ability to condense broad and potentially complicated topics into lucid and relatable commentary about society often leaves me feeling refreshingly schooled.
Like Brené Brown, his voice is made for audiobooks. But unlike the American researcher, Alain de Botton’s smooth delivery feels like the warmest, most loving hug, which you rightfully deserve this festive season.
In an ideal world, I’d be able to devour chick lit and Sumiko Tan all the time without getting judged. But I work for RICE, so.
Luckily, it’s much harder to see what I’m listening to, which is why the first audiobook I downloaded was my favourite from my teenage years: Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella. More than a decade later, I still remember the feeling of being enraptured by the easy, light-hearted prose. I proceeded to read the rest of Sophie Kinsella’s books until I outgrew chick lit—or, more likely, didn’t want to get judged for loving fluff.
But the beautiful—and perhaps frustrating—thing about excellent chick lit is its unnerving ability to have a plot that’s remarkably divorced from reality, while championing characters who are generic enough for the reader or listener to project their own hopes onto, hence believing these fairytale lives were possible in reality. Such is the case with Can You Keep a Secret.
The author, who’s also penned the delightful Shopaholic series, manages to construct the quintessential chick lit narrative complete with meet-cute and an exciting, albeit predictable, twist. Girl meets boy on plane. Girl proceeds to dish her secrets. Girl lands and goes back to work. Girl finds out boy on plane is her new boss. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl and boy face a relationship hurdle. Girl and boy overcome said relationship hurdle. Fin.
Once upon a time, life was simple, nice, and tidy, much like old school chick lit. But similarly, there was also less nuance. Even though I may welcome the occasional escape from the mess of reality, especially when the Christmas blues hit, I understand that living a full life necessitates embracing every emotion, including the darker ones.
This Christmas period, I’ll disappear into my head again as usual. But maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll eventually emerge realising the emotions that make me feel most alone are the ones which are painfully universal.
All the books featured are available as audiobooks on Storytel, a subscription-based platform. Rice readers get a 30-day free trial, so download their app to get started, and check out over 110,000 titles they have available for streaming or download.
No need to write to us. Just read us this festive season.
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