Since I was a little girl, I’ve often felt as if I were spilling everywhere. For me, living in the world means to throb at saturation point, brimful of restless, inchoate emotion. I feel too much; I am, it seems, too much. And while I would not choose to be otherwise, I also cannot pretend that it is easy or comfortable to be inclined towards these sorts of keen and unwieldy responses to everyday circumstances. Despite my best efforts, I am not chill, and will never be chill—I possess only meager crumbs of that coveted asset. So, I muddle on as best I can.
Reading is a safe harbor, and it is also my pressure valve. I run to books when I am overwhelmed and need to pace my thoughts and breath with the steady absorption of another person’s words. Perhaps I am specifically seeking solidarity or empathy in my too muchness, or need to bear witness to a narrator or character’s own glut of feeling. In the latter case, I recalibrate by summoning empathy from my own reservoir, rather than demanding it from some external source. I could fill a library with the texts that offer me these varieties of sustenance, but below are ten titles that always call me back.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Dorothea Brooke is George Eliot’s most famous heroine, and I love her—but few literary characters are as dear to me as Maggie Tulliver, the spirited protagonist of Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss. I’ve previously referred to her as a Victorian Ramona Quimby, but that’s insufficient because we never encounter Ramona as an adult. Passionate and intellectually ravenous, Maggie chafes against the constraints of her provincial English society, embodied in particular by her beloved yet parochially intractable brother. In my estimation, Eliot is one of our finest observers of humanity. Through Maggie, she articulates the tragedy of loving people who are fundamentally disinclined to understand you, and the culture of shaming that dogs women who cannot abide convention’s most cruel and nonsensical strictures.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Bluets braids philosophy, slips of memoir, and poetry into a mesmeric compendium of two hundred and forty lyrical meditations on loss and desire, all woven into a tender consideration of the color blue. It is one of the only books I am tempted to call “perfect,” and while I would happily reread it anytime, and in any place, it is a particularly soothing companion for one’s heart on melancholy days.
Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper
I have elaborated elsewhere on Hopper’s gorgeous essay collection, which considers, through literary analysis, memoir, and pop culture criticism, the many ways we experience love untethered to sexual romance. Much like Hopper herself—I am fortunate to call her a friend—Hard to Love glows with compassionate warmth. It is a book that insists on kindness to oneself, not through any didacticism, but because Hopper always writes from a place of empathy and fellowship. And in turn, she inspires the best in us.
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name by Audre Lorde
I used to teach Zami in a queer literature course, and although I didn’t need to reread it every semester, I inevitably did so anyway. A lush, somatic “biomythography”—the term coined by Lorde to describe the entwining of biography, history, and myth—Zami traces the author’s coming of age as a black queer writer in an America that, as we know too well, villainizes difference. The book is by turns joyous and shattering, and it’s quite sexy, too (on that note, I also suggest perusing Lorde’s love poetry). Its insistence upon women’s erotic power is both nourishing and profoundly satisfying (for the undergirding theory, see Lorde’s classic essay, “The Uses of the Erotic”).
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I realize that some of the titles on this list may seem obvious—and for that reason, perhaps a little redundant. But few texts have calmed my inner tempest like Gilead. I read this book for the first time in the weeks after my mother died, when I was unmoored in a way I had never previously been, and if it did not lessen my grief, it offered me a peacefulness that seemed to wrap around my sadness, allowing it to breathe while also steadying it, like the easing of sea waves after a storm. I come to Gilead as a wayward and agitated supplicant, and without fail, it tenderly extends its hand. I have often gotten the impression that certain books don’t care much for their readers, but with Gilead, it’s quite the opposite. Perhaps as a result of its epistolary structure—narrator John Ames is writing letters to his young son—this novel seems to love all who dwell in its pages.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Frustration gave me a stomachache, I went back along the street, I felt as if I were about to lose my breath and sink to the ground. As if it were prehensile, my eye grasped the letters of a plaque on the building opposite. Words so that I wouldn’t fall.
Sometimes, when I am tangling with cumbersome and fraught feelings, I want reading material that supplies me with pinprick precise focus and which, as a result, enables a bit of emotional recalibration. In these situations, Elena Ferrante is who I want, but more than that, I want her protagonist, Olga, who we meet as she is reeling from her husband’s infidelity and unceremonious abandonment. Her fury is wild and searing, and the way I absorb it is probably indulgent: ultimately, my preoccupation with Olga, and my own vicarious outrage, supplants whatever else is hounding me. Reading The Days of Abandonment feels like purification by fire, as I travel with Olga through the squalor of her anger and anxious disorientation until she emerges elsewhere, clarified and relatively at peace.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
I came to Wang’s book as someone who also lives with mental illness, although not schizoaffective disorder. However, this certainly need not be a prerequisite for reading The Collected Schizophrenias, as the book’s well-earned acclaim and popularity indicate. Wang has gifted us with a profound and tenderly rendered collection of essays that remind us how difficult it can be both to live in this world and inside our own heads. It is, then, an opportunity for solidarity, for bearing witness, and for remembering that we must always extend compassion towards one another. What’s more, Wang is a rare writer whose prose is at once stunningly powerful and imbued with gentleness: to read her is to learn from her.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Black Beauty is one of my favorite novels from childhood, and it is still where I turn if I need a hearty, thorough cry. I suggest pairing it with Danny Elfman’s exquisite score for the 1994 film adaptation, which my sisters and I watched devotedly when we were growing up. Although I think we should always be permitted to sit with our feelings for as long as we need, I find it both useful and calming to decenter myself—in this case, to imagine the wonder and vulnerability of creatures that cannot vouch for their own well-being and to whom we owe only love and mercy.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.
Like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf is a masterful articulator of human particularities, and of experiences that linger at the spokes of language until she illuminates them with elegant clarity. You may already know that Mrs. Dalloway is not exactly a happy novel—though, to be honest, I’m not sure what a “happy novel” would look like—and god, Peter Walsh is a simply wretched character. Yet there is something so hopeful about this text. Perhaps it has something to do with the fluid structure: although most of the narrative is focalized through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective, it glides through the minds of various other characters, too, both major and minor, as if to say, “We are all of us topsy-turvy inside, brimming with fears and joys and pettiness. We are all at the mercy of this wild world.” Of course, this statement is inadequate; life is profoundly more dangerous for some than it is for others. It reminds me to always give of myself what I can—and to take solace that my raucous and volatile interiority is not at all unique to humankind.
Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
First, a confession: I only recently read Sotelo’s poetry collection for the first time. However, I am so compelled by her meditation upon the cultural perception of virginity, and so dazzled by her lyrical and righteous examination of loss, heartbreak, sexual love, that I know I will regularly return to these poems for sustenance. “The virgins are here to prove a point,” Sotelo writes, “The virgins are here to tell you to fuck off.” These poems insist, and they challenge—and they swathe us in their visceral and incandescent beauty.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Rachel’s debut book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, out now from Grand Central Publishing! – Ed.
Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote
Written in the tradition of Shrill, Dead Girls, Sex Object and other frank books about the female gaze, Too Much encourages women to reconsider the beauty of their excesses-emotional, physical, and spiritual. Rachel Vorona Cote braids cultural criticism, theory, and storytelling together in her exploration of how culture grinds away our bodies, souls, and sexualities, forcing us into smaller lives than we desire. An erstwhile Victorian scholar, she sees many parallels between that era’s fixation on women’s “hysterical” behavior and our modern policing of the same; in the space of her writing, you’re as likely to encounter Jane Eyre and Lizzie Bennet as you are Britney Spears and Lana Del Rey. This book will tell the story of how women, from then and now, have learned to draw power from their reservoirs of feeling, all that makes us “too much.”