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!

War And Peace
War And Peace
A beautiful Penguin Classics clothbound edition of Tolstoy's magnificent epic novel of love, conflict, fate and human life in all its imperfection and grandeur

At a glittering society party in St Petersburg in 1805, conversations are dominated by the prospect of war. Terror swiftly engulfs the country as Napoleon's army marches on Russia, and the lives of three young people are changed forever. The stories of quixotic Pierre, cynical Andrey and impetuous Natasha interweave with a huge cast, from aristocrats and peasants to soldiers and Napoleon himself. In War and Peace, Tolstoy entwines grand themes - conflict and love, birth and death, free will and faith - with unforgettable scenes of nineteenth-century Russia, to create a magnificent epic of human life in all its imperfection and grandeur.

Translated with an introduction and notes by Anthony Briggs, and with an afterword by Orlando Figes

Anthony Briggs's superb translation combines stirring, accessible prose with fidelity to Tolstoy's original, while Orlando Figes's afterword discusses the novel's vast scope and depiction of Russian identity. This edition also contains appendices, notes, a list of prominent characters and maps.

'A masterpiece ... This new translation is excellent' - Anthony Beevor
The Penguin English Library Edition of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

'The frail gunwales bent in, collapsed, and snapped, as both jaws, like an enormous shears, sliding further aft, bit the craft completely in twain...'

Moby-Dick is one of the most expansive feats of imagination in the whole of literature: the mad, raging, Shakespearean tale of Captain Ahab's insane quest to kill a giant white whale that has taken his leg, and upon which he has sworn vengeance, at any cost. A creation unlike any other, this is an epic story of fatal monomania and the deepest dreams and obsessions of mankind.

The Penguin English Library - 100 editions of the best fiction in English, from the eighteenth century and the very first novels to the beginning of the First World War.

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