The most hopeful thing about books is that they exist. Is it not a miracle to look at a shelf and see the vast range of human experience laid out before us? How remarkable that someone picked up a quill or a typewriter or a laptop and set about distilling their thoughts and ideas into such a perfect delivery mechanism. Every first page functions as the wardrobe door that will open up and show me a new Narnia.
There are periods when I’m not up to the journey, when hope is too much to ask for and I am only fit for rereading Georgette Heyer in the bath or cowering under the covers with PG Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford on audio. But the comfort reading does comfort, and then I am ready to re-engage, to explore, to look for something new.
Humankind by Rutger Bregman really did make me feel hopeful about humanity and reinforce my long-held resolution – under threat from the effects of consuming too much social media and news – that we should try to give our fellow humans the benefit of the doubt, and that it is better to be occasionally screwed over than move through the world full of suspicion and mistrust. Black and British by David Olusoga, an erudite exploration of racism and how it continues to mutate, is hopeful because it is exhilarating to read a fine mind at work, and because, as Olusoga says in his conclusion: “Knowing this history better, understanding the forces it has unleashed, and seeing oneself as part of a longer story, is one of the ways in which we can keep trying to move forward.”
I like reading about people who have witnessed the worst of humanity and found a way through. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has kept me company through many a long night, and The Choice by Edith Eger, who survived Auschwitz and became a therapist, is generous and wise. Maya Angelou lights the way with grace. I love this from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “She comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy.”
Being close to death can help us to notice what really matters. With the End in Mind by Dr Kathryn Mannix takes us into the world of palliative care and shows there is little to fear and much to prepare for when it comes to death: “There are only two days with fewer than twenty-four hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookends astride our lives: One is celebrated every year yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.”
This is what I hold on to. What can I be doing now to make my deathbed reckoning more satisfying? How do we maintain a faith in humanity? Books help. The feel and the smell. That they exist, that people write them and read them. That always offers me a glimmer of hope on a dark day.
• Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink is published by Picador. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.