Clean Reading: Five Books to Read in Treatment

By Zachary Siegel 08/18/14

Five books to read in treatment or early sobriety, numbered arbitrarily . . . .


When you clean up you will realize that there is a new concept of time. You will have a lot of it. It will go slow. Managing a habit is a 24/7 job. Once you lose that job, once you fire yourself from that job because of its sheer torture, it is likely that you will flounder in having too much time. 

In treatment, depending on where you go—or even if you go—they provide you with a rigid schedule. They will tell you when to eat, when to sleep, where to be and when to be there. The body is targeted and manipulated in such a way that frees you from the burden of having to figure out what to do with your time.

These writers taught me how to be alone and not be lonely.

Eventually, you will experience the pains of free time, of idleness. I found that reading is the most productive way, in early sobriety, for one to learn to be comfortable in their loneness. Jean-Paul Sartre said that, "If you are lonely when you are alone, you’re in bad company."

Who or what is better company than great books? Whether you are in treatment or early sobriety, living in a halfway house or in your parents’ basement, pick up the habit of reading. 

Below is a list of five books and essays to read, some of my favorite quotes excerpted from them, and why these works are great for the newly sober. Please note that none of these texts are explicitly about addiction. None of them will tell you how to live your life or give you the answers you think you are looking for. They are not dogmatic in that way. They will, however, force you to find your own answers. But they will also hold your hand and guide you while doing so. 

Lastly, before the list begins, it is said that we need a psychic change to break our habit; these writers can provide just that metamorphosis, if you let them. 

#1 The Stranger by Albert Camus

One of my good friends let me borrow his copy of The Stranger while we roomed together in a halfway house. This book changed me, utterly. Written in a Hemingway-esque prose, it is about a man of profound indifference. Out of nowhere, he shoots an Arab on a beach while vacationing. The second half of the novella is his experience in jail while he goes through a murder trial. This may sound grim and impertinent to recovery. There is however, an intense existential engagement with love, hate, death, and indifference. Count how many times the hero talks about Marie’s smile. You will lose count. 

And it ends with an infinite affirmation of the life that we live on this planet. Life affirmation, I learned from Camus, is key. No matter what the circumstance, even impending death, it is possible to fall in love with life. Life has to be loved. 

Favorite Quotes: 

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer…And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

“It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”

“I told her that I’d lived there [Paris] once and she asked me what it was like. I said, “It’s dirty. Lots of pigeons and dark courtyards. Everybody’s pale.”

#2 This is Water by David Foster Wallace    

I’ll start with the quote first this time. 

“Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

This is Water was originally a commencement speech that Wallace gave to Kenyon College in 2005 (read it here). In early sobriety one is often faced with BIG existential questions: higher powers, god, and the meaning to life and so on. Wallace helped me a great deal with questions of worship. A god was out of the question for me, but according to him, if we worship objects and other falsities they will, “eat us alive.”

And I can’t really stand atheists, but I guess I am one, and to outright say there is no such thing, crap. It forced me to think and re-think everything. 

Doesn’t the passage above force you, to an uncanny degree, to question what it is you're worshiping right now? Where are you “tapping meaning” from? Hopefully it is not a Wiccan Mother Goddess. But what if it is an object as silly and meaningless as a syringe? Or a bottle of liquid? The objects we worship yield intense power over us. 

Wallace’s commencement speech, in sum, will make you face life. Ask anyone who is sober. They had to face life at one point. The sooner the better, they say. Maybe read it the day you graduate treatment, if you are kitschy in that way. 

 #3 Anything by Soren Kierkegaard 

You’ll hear, and probably have heard already, that addiction is a spiritual malady. Whether or not you subscribe to that etiology, there is undoubtedly psychic torment that is the life of an addict. Kierkegaard, though I am not sure if he was addicted to anything, was a spiritually tortured man. He wrote volumes posing unanswerable questions and how to live despite having no answers to said questions. He wrote books like Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread. Sounds delightful, right? 

Here is a passage from his Works of Love. I apologize in advance for it being so long. He was Danish, and it was the 1800’s—cut the man some slack. 

“…that we should believe nothing which we cannot see with our eyes, then first and foremost we ought to give up believing in love. If we were to do so and do it out of fear lest we be deceived, would we not then be deceived? We can, of course, be deceived in many ways. We can be deceived by believing what is untrue, but we certainly are also deceived by not believing what is true. We can be deceived by appearances, but we can also be deceived by shrewdness, by the flattering conceit which is absolutely certain it cannot be deceived. Which deception is more dangerous? Whose recovery is more doubtful, that of one who does not see, or that of the person who sees and yet does not see? What is more difficult--to awaken someone who is sleeping or to awaken someone who awake, is dreaming that he is awake? Which is sadder, the sight that promptly and unconditionally moves one to tears, the sight of someone unhappily deceived in love, or the sight that in a certain sense could tempt laughter, the sight of the self-deceived, whose fatuous conceit of not being deceived would indeed be ridiculous and laughable if the ridiculousness of it were not an even stronger expression for horror, since it shows that he is unworthy of tears.” 

Is this not a beautiful way for one to see that what he or she may see is not real? Kierkegaard, in this passage, is playing the non-positivist par excellence. You cannot see love. Do you not believe in it then? We deceive ourselves, but addicts and alcoholics do so in a way that is destructive and painful. It’s best we wake up from deception. Whose recovery is more doubtful?  Sheesh, the man is talking to us here in that sentence. We should all be listening to Kierkegaard right now. He helped wake me up and I love him because of it.   

#4 (wo)Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl 

In treatment my counselor gave me this book to shut my trap because I hated 12-step ideology and spiritualism and so on (read that story here). But Frankl himself identified as Jewish. He was religious. He was spiritual. But he didn’t jam that down your hole. He is as practical as it gets. 

There are two parts to this non-fiction. The first is his brutal recounting of times inside Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II. It may offer you a new perspective on where you are in life. Maybe a rehab or a shit-halfway house doesn’t seem so bad anymore. 

The second part of Frankl’s work is a walk through of his brand of existential analysis called Logotherapy (logos being Greek for meaning here). It more or less reads as a modern day self-help book, which may, for some, feel alienating, but who is above reading self-help books? Don’t lie.  

Favorite Quotes: 

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

 “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' or his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'”

 #5 Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders 

This book was not out when I went through the ringer. I wish it had been. Saunders is one of the best living storytellers America has. Like Wallace, he commenced a graduating class of Syracuse University by giving a speech that emphasized kindness. Saunders grew up religious. After he and his wife had a child they both began to expand their horizons and now commit to practicing Buddhism. 

Again, this may, on the surface, sound impertinent to recovery, another commencement speech. But Saunders just so happens to hit everybody on a level beyond intellect. That is why this speech was shared over a million friggin’ times after it was transcribed (read it here). I'm betting that many people who graduated college thirty years ago shared it.  


“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

“There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”

Selfishness is a sickness, seek anti-selfishness medicine: these words remind me of things I have heard to counter-act addictive tendencies. In my own experience, anti-selfish tactics (of whatever variety: volunteer with old people, at a homeless shelter etc.) are useful and practical. Saunders, like the rest of these writers, is sensitive to neurosis, to psychic torment, and he does his best, which is a pretty damn good job, to get us out of it. He has gotten me out of it time and time again. 

At two years sober I constantly revisit all of the works mentioned above. These writers taught me how to be alone and not be lonely, how to embrace what suffering comes my way, how to be responsible for my own life, and most of all, each one of these thinkers puts an emphasis on living a conscious alert life, one that is lived with others whom we can love. That is the best anti-addiction antidote there is. 

Note: I feel somewhat miffed that no woman made it on. Anybody who has had mind-changing experiences reading women authors, throw 'em in the comment section.

Zachary Siegel is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about college sober and how AA works.

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