by Mary Hrovat
The indicators that people use to track and understand their moods include exercise, diet, sleep, and many others. I’ve been thinking recently that my library activity surely must be correlated with my mood. I’m a frequent user of two libraries, and my checkouts and returns have a fairly small and regular ebb and flow. Overlying these minor fluctuations are larger and more diffuse patterns that I think offer clues to my inner state.
Reading the clues can be complicated. If there’s a connection between mood and library activity or reading, it’s not clear-cut. But that’s true of various other markers that people track. For example, sometimes I get a lot of exercise because I’m filled with energy and relish the physical pleasure of walking and observing. At other times, a high step count reflects the fact that I’m restless and anxious; part of me is hoping that if I walk far enough, I can out-walk my problems or maybe even myself. Sometimes I push myself to get out a lot even if I feel exhausted and sick at heart, because I hope the exercise will lighten my mood or help me sleep. And sometimes, of course, I walk a lot because there are many errands to run, and I don’t drive.
The depression questionnaire they use at my doctor’s office asks about seemingly contradictory things; one question asks whether you’ve either lost your appetite or been overeating, for example, and another asks if you’re sleeping more or less. I don’t know if that means that depression can either enhance or suppress appetite, or whether people respond to depression by shunning food or seeking comfort from it, or (most likely) a little of both. It can be very hard to tell symptoms from attempts to treat symptoms.
Sometimes external circumstances are the main factor in how many books I bring home from the library. Just before time off from work, I might gather up books I’ve been hoping to read (thinking that I’ll have ample free time, which mysteriously isn’t always the case). On the rare occasions I’ve needed minor surgery, I’ve piled books next to my bed to read as I recuperated. The thought of the books waiting for me at home—one or two old favorites and some new things to try—made the tedium and anxiety of a day in the hospital bearable. This summer, before a family member in another state began treatment for cancer, I stocked up quite indiscriminately on novels, anticipating that I would need to escape into imagined worlds.
Sometimes, though, I wind up carrying an armful of books home out of sheer exuberance. For example, a book that I’m reading may lead me to many others in a glorious widening of my horizons. I recently had this experience with Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct. I wonder whether the book awakened my curiosity and led me outward, or whether I chose the book because I was in an expansive mood. (The answer to that question may be “Yes.”)
Or perhaps I discover a new author or stumble across a concept or person or event that fascinates me. Sometimes I’m browsing in the library and everything just looks interesting. I go in search of a specific novel, and my attention snags on other titles as I walk through the fiction. Or I browse beyond the poet or historical period or place I came to the library to look up. I walk in with one or two call numbers and come out with six or eight books. In periods of particularly high energy, everything seems connected to whatever’s on my mind. The world shimmers with possibility; horizons broaden, and I happily rush headlong into the abundance.
Is this mindset, in its extreme form, a mild type of mania (as the term is used to describe a phase in bipolar disorder)? I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s hard for me to see it that way. For one thing, it’s so good to be drawn to something after a long slog through anhedonia that I don’t want to see these times of general euphoria as part of the same pattern. But maybe they are the up side of the down periods.
Sometimes the quest for books has a more desperate cast. Maybe an overall positive state of mind is starting to slip, and I’m scrabbling around for fresh inspiration. Maybe the weather is persistently gray or work is more tedious and discouraging than usual. I can always check my own shelves for something that might help. I also have multiple book lists, on paper and in various online forms, and when I’m casting about for something that will spark even a mild interest or hold away despair, I check one of them, jot down some names and call numbers, and head out to roam the library.
Most of the time I’ll find something that will at least keep my mind occupied for a while. Sometimes, though, all the books on the shelves (or even all the books on the lists) seem pointless and sterile. The library is one of the most painful places in which to feel dissatisfied or unmotivated, because it offers so much.
Ultimately the books go back, usually in a trickle, occasionally in a flood. I typically return books one or two at a time as I read my way down the pile, replacing them with another one or two. The times when a large number of books go back at once represent the contraction that inevitably follows expansion, but they’re not necessarily a sign of low energy or unhappy mood, any more than expansion is always associated with exhilaration. For example, if I’m finished researching a writing project, I return all the books I’ve used with a sense of mild satisfaction and relief.
Sometimes I decide to return library books unread not because I’m bored with them but because I’m pleasantly immersed in another book that’s taking more time than I anticipated, or I’ve started writing something and want to focus on research for the new piece. In that case, I often add the unread books to a list for later. Contraction in this case might more properly be called focus; energy and attention are not spilling outward in many directions but are directed toward a specific object.
There’s an interesting comparison with food intake and mood; the amount I’m eating tells only part of the story. The variety in my diet often reflects how I’m feeling about the world. Eating the same thing every day is usually not a great sign (although it’s better than wildly chaotic eating patterns or not eating much at all). Eating a wider range of food usually indicates a happier or at least less constricted mood. With reading, on the other hand, variety is exciting, but focus can be a lot richer and deeper.
Sometimes I’ll return a lot of books because I need a rest from reading, or at least from serious reading. I need to sort out all the things I’ve taken in, see how they fit into my mental landscape, what they displace or nudge aside, how everything else looks in their company. I need to digest.
Or maybe I’ve been in my head too long, listening to others tell me what’s in their heads, and I need to ground myself in the physical world. In the poem Return, Robinson Jeffers speaks of touching “things and things and no more thoughts.” These pauses may be the best type of contraction, and they often contain the seeds of later expansion. Return begins:
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
But sometimes I’ll go through my library books, usually late at night, and pile most of them up to go back to the library in the morning in a mood of despair and/or renunciation. This is the most painful form of contraction.
The reason may be that nothing seems worthwhile. The glow of possibility has fled; the doors have all slammed shut. I don’t know what’s worse: when I feel so miserable that I don’t care what the books used to mean and I just want them gone, or when I miss that sense of potential and mourn its loss. There are times I doubt the value of my intensely verbal approach to life, or my capacity to do anything worthwhile with it. I think I should get rid of all the books I own, throw away all the notebooks I’ve written in, and give up on being a word person. Those are dark times, because I’m not sure what else I could possibly be.
My library and reading habits potentially reveal times of high and low energy, of expansion and contraction, of cycles of intake and processing. None of these things is easily obvious from numbers and dates alone, and none of the pairs maps neatly onto any of the others. I suspect that many of the items potentially tracked by mood trackers are like this; the patterns they reveal need to be interpreted case by case.
Everyday behavior seems simple, obvious, accessible; however, when I look closely at my behavior and try to figure out the underlying causes, and perhaps to influence it, I feel as if I’m working with nebulous, dimly perceived forces that I can’t really grasp in their entirety. These forces (habit, emotion, mood, social environment, and so on) are so close to me that it’s hard to get a comprehensive view and so interconnected that the distinction between cause and effect becomes unclear.
I reach out for metaphors to describe inner experience: something liquid that can be blocked or flowing, something that can be light or dark, monochrome or brilliant with color, smooth or jagged, open or bounded, empty or full. I wonder if the mind has weather: mild sunshine, flat gray days, terrifying storms, and periods of calm stillness.
But the metaphor is not the thing itself. Any metaphor or explanation I come up with is provisional, an incomplete version that will, with any luck, be replaced by something a little larger, fuller, more complex. Depression, or, more broadly, mood, may be one of those concepts, like family, or love, or personality, that we perhaps know best by living them rather than definitively categorizing and analyzing them. A lifetime isn’t long enough to see all the permutations and possibilities. Our knowledge is always contextual and contingent. Maybe the fact that I see it that way means that ultimately I’m on the side of openness, possibility, and change.
You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.