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Why Reading Sad Books is a Good Thing

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

It may seem counter-intuitive, but reading "downers" lifts us up

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is ‘depressing’ because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; ‘witty stories,’ in which every problem is the occasion for a joke; ‘upbeat’ stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown-ups now, we get to stay in the kitchen while the other grown-ups talk.” — Tobias Wolff

What books do you remember long after you’ve read them?

If I asked you to tell me about a book that made a lasting impact on you, what book would come to mind?

If you’re a reader, there are probably dozens that we could talk about, but I’m betting that the ones you recall, the ones that stick with you, are books that had some intense emotion and probably some pain. You don’t remember the books that were generic, continually upbeat and optimistic in every situation, do you? They may have entertained you, but did they touch you?

Think of it this way: Do you remember individual Hallmark movies or do they all blur together?

People joke about such simplicity:

What has 15 actors, four settings, two writers, and one plot? 632 Hallmark movies.
Hallmark movies have formulaic plots, two-dimensional characters, and half the bad guys want to sell some piece of land……it’s basically “Scooby-Doo!” for sentimental grown-ups.

Darn you, Mrs. Maguire!

When I was in fifth grade, we had reading time after recess. I settled into my desk and immediately disappeared into the farm of Charlotte’s Web. At the age of ten, I had already discovered the joy of abandoning self and being absorbed into a story. Lost in the barnyard smells and the personalities of various animals, I got to the death of Charlotte, the spider. It was my first memorable experience with death. How could I not cry?

In vivid recall, I see Mrs. Maguire, her bouffant dark hair, black cat-eye glasses, and skinny ankles on spiky-heeled shoes strutting down the classroom aisle, waving a tissue in her hand. She may as well have been a flashy drum majorette at the head of a laughing parade.

“Why, look at that! She’s crying real tears!”

Everyone looked. Everyone laughed. I was humiliated. I never liked Mrs. Maguire, and to this day I don’t know if she was mocking me or crying out in amazement that a child could be so involved with a book that she’d be brought to tears. She didn’t understand what it was like to REALLY read something if she found my grief so amusing. She certainly didn’t have much sensitivity training to call attention to my intense reaction.

I’ve been brought to tears by dozens of books since then, experiencing grief and loss and sad situations in books like Cutting for Stone, The Book Thief, The Red Tent, A Man Called Ove, and many, many more. If you’re a lifelong reader, you’ve probably also experienced sincere emotion from reading a book.

Escaping into a book is a pleasurable activity. I love indulging in a book that takes me far away without having to think about life. For me, those are thrillers and Gothic mysteries, lightweight, temporary reads that aren’t memorable. But they don’t touch me.

It’s the deeper, more realistic, sadder books that impact my life

“In Defense of Depressing Books,” by Laurie Uttich in the Huffington Post, writes.

for me, a “great” book (or essay or poem or short story) goes beyond entertainment and escapism — although it often accomplishes that, too — and teaches me something about being human….It awakens (or reawakens) in me the understanding of what it means to suffer, to love, to fail, to hope, to live, to die. It reminds me of one truth I hold to be absolute: the commonality of the human condition. We all bleed. We are all one. We are not alone.”

Laurie Uttich’s comments parallel Christi Williams’ definition of good books:

“…books that don’t sugar-coat existence, but rather draw you into the realities of life. . . books that aren’t afraid to show you the real suffering and how characters respond to it…books that deal with death and radical sacrifice.”

Right on, sisters! You’ve got it covered. Most of the time, I want to read books that make me FEEL something.

Why we should read books that many consider sad or depressing?

  • To find that we are not alone. None of us have perfect lives. Whether your problem is the loss of a job, financial difficulty, family crisis, addiction, hunger, loneliness, depression, identity, discrimination, bad health, or the death of someone you love, in reading, you discover stories of those with the same issue. You are not the first to face this, nor will you be the last. Reading about the ordeals of others dissipates your isolation.

  • To see problems and solutions BEFORE we experience them, giving us “emotional practice for future grief.” Seeing how others deal with cancer, abuse, drug addiction, or divorce gives us options for future behavior if we have to face the same problem.

  • To learn about the plight of others and in the process about discrimination, social injustice, and issues of race, class, and culture that we might never otherwise experience. Such exposure produces an awareness that helps us fight for betterment — or at least understand the problems.

  • To process our own experiences and emotions. Oftentimes, reading a book that echoes your own experiences is cathartic, enabling you to express long-dormant thoughts and excise suppressed emotion. Finally, you’re able to vent.

  • To create empathy and compassion. Do you think of “depressed” people as malingers? Drug abusers as criminals? Reading makes you less judgmental because you see how individual circumstances affect a person’s trajectory. You become more understanding.

  • To deal with the concept of evil — or of bad things happening to good people. Reading “realistic” books helps us come to terms with the idea that life can be hard, unfair, and downright destructive.

The 2020 Pulitzer Prize-Winner for General Nonfiction is a Cancer Chronicle

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction went to Anne Boyer’s The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, a narrative about “catastrophic illness was both a crisis and an initiation into new ideas about mortality and the gendered politics of illness.”

I haven’t read it yet. I bet it won’t be a happy read, but it will be an important one. I’ve also been impacted by Joyce Maynard’s The Best of Us, a memoir about finding love late in life and then losing him shortly after an epic battle with pancreatic cancer, as well as The Unwinding of a Miracle, by Julie Yip-Williams. Both books were brutal cancer chronicles, but both taught me about different ways to approach illness, the human spirit, and the acceptance of death.

Most books that have sadness in them also have great depth and emotional resonance. Let’s not avoid pain on the pages. In reality, those “sad” books make us better people.

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