Five books that saved my life by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li, author of Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life chooses the books that have shaped her perspective and helped her battle depression

Books are like people: some, met through chance encounters, become lifelong companions. Others, sought out with enthusiasm and expectation, fade in time. To pick five books that have changed one’s life is a difficult task, but here are some books that I return to often. They have changed and will continue to change, if not my life, my perception of life. 

Saga of the Century

Rebecca West

This trilogy, like The Dream of Red Chamber, was not finished. To follow a set of characters — and the characters in this trilogy make a most memorable set — in an unfinished masterpiece feels as though one accompanies them on a journey that does not end. And it feels just right that the journey should not end, as their world is our world, their lives our lives — full of discrepancy and perplexity and surprise and joy.

After I read The Fountain Overflows, I bought multiple copies of it for friends. I finished This Real Night on a trip and, reading the last fifty pages at an airport, I could not stop weeping. Many books have moved me to tears for a moment, but this is the only time a book has made me cry — unabashedly and in public. So interwoven and inseparable are life’s beauty and cruelty that one has to admire West’s fearless honesty. Cousin Rosamund ends abruptly in the middle; a mercy as much as a loss for the reader. One can hardly imagine reading through another ending as intense as that of This Real Night, though the world we live in today, increasingly dangerous and senseless, is not far from the world depicted in the last book of the trilogy. 

Surprised by Joy 

C.S. Lewis

A friend told me about the book when I was having a difficult time. “I’m not sure how you’d react to the book,” she said. “It’s about his conversion to Christianity, after all.”

It’s a rare gift given by a friend — to introduce a book that I know I’ll return to always. Lewis retraced his experience of childhood and early adulthood to reach his definition of Joy, which others may call by a different name, but nevertheless still search for.

I was reading this book when I was working on Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. One of the questions I asked myself repeatedly while writing the book is: can one live without what one cannot have? And then I reached this passage: 

 “The walk I now remembered. It seemed to me that I had tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realized was that it had returned — that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only passion in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have.”

It’s hard to describe precisely how that passage affected me. Anything I could say would be close to cliché. “To have is to want and to want is to have” came at the right moment, an answer to an unanswerable question.

War and Peace 

Leo Tolstoy


Herman Melville

I put these two books together because I rotate them, like two different crops, for my early morning reading. I read War and Peace in the first half of the year and Moby-Dick in the second half. One offers sublime realism, the other sublime metaphor — together they make a fine constitutional!

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