In the new book Ordinarily Well, writer Peter Kramer argues that antidepressants are much more than ‘happy pills’ that give users a placebo sense of well-being. Kramer is also the author of Listening to Prozac, a 1993 book exploring the relationship between antidepressants and the idea of a consistent self. With antidepressants ranking number three in prescribed medicines for adults in the U.S., and with use among Americans four times what it was in the early 1990s, Kramer’s new book should come as validation to many (and a boon to the drug industry.)
Yet despite antidepressants’ commonplace role in the culture, mental illness still is stigmatized by many, who feel depressed people should simply snap out of their bad mood. “Depression” remains a catch-all phrase to describe a variety of conditions ranging from the occasional bad day to paralyzing inertia. Look for books about depression, and you’ll find many, many titles suggesting the blues can be chased away by everything from diet to exercise to prayer to meditation to simply refusing to surrender to your brain chemistry.
To truly understand the disease, and not just the treatment, you need to look to writers with sensitivity and compassion about the real nature of the self in despair, be they novelists or doctors, contemporary writers or playwrights dead for hundreds of years. Here are some of the best books on depression to help make sense of the affliction known by many as the black dog.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
A favorite of high school English classes, this book was not published in the U.S. until years after the poet’s own death by suicide. In this autobiographical novel, Plath describes the experiences of Esther Greenwood, a talented young writer who wins an internship at a New York magazine (just as Plath did) yet finds little meaning in anything that happens, and struggles with an overwhelming sense of pointlessness. Plath’s character manages to get on top of her condition with help from a sympathetic psychiatrist; in real life, the poet was ultimately unable to save herself.
Darkness Visible by William Styron
William Styron was sixty years old, a celebrated and best-selling writer, when he was struck with a crippling spell of depression. Suddenly the writer couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t drink (an important motivator of his writing), and he couldn’t come up with a concrete reason for continuing to live. In this memoir of his ‘descent into madness,’ the writer examines the depression that plagued writers Albert Camus, Randall Jarrell, and others, and describes how he managed to pull himself out of the depths.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
“O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt.” In Shakespeare’s play, the young prince despairs of the unendurable condition of being human. While we’ll never know if the playwright intended his protagonist to be clinically depressed, scores of modern scholars have interpreted his soliloquies as evidence of mental instability. Mourning his dead father, betrayed by his newly remarried mother, and wondering what the point is in going on, Hamlet exemplifies the depressive’s search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent world.
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
Like many writers, Solomon begins his inquiry into depression with his own experience. But he doesn’t stop there. He travels the globe looking at the way different cultures define and treat the disease (or don’t), and traces the history of our conception of what it means to be depressed through history. He also questions the possible dangers of reducing the condition as entirely biological in nature, and investigates how we might think about, treat, and define the illness in the future.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
In this memoir, scientist Jamison describes the descent of her own bipolar condition. Although both her manic and depressive episodes could be ruinous to her career, health, and relationships, she was at times reluctant to medicate against them, as they were not without their own seductive allure. Redfield would go on to head the Mood Disorders Center at John Hopkins and write an influential text on diagnosing bipolar illness, but to many her most important contribution are the several memoirs she’s written about her own experiences with the disease.