Why We Read Sad Books

Gracious, it’s been May for four days already! Where is my life going? Oh, that’s right–I’m reading it away. From my 9-5 (oh, and it’s catalog time too), to beta reads for fellow writers in my two writing groups, to a freelance editing gig and a work-for-hire writing job, plus making slow but satisfying progress on my own manuscript, I’m awfully busy looking at, creating, deleting, and moving around words. This includes words I’m encountering for the first time as I attempt to learn German. Ich Heiβe Erin. Ich komme aus Michigan. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

I’ve also started reading a couple new “real” books–you know, with covers and everything–after finishing up Spill Simmer Falter Wither (lovely and sad) and Lolita (anti-lovely and sad and twisted and I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on what I think of it…).

I’m still very much in the beginnings of these long books, but it’s been a while since I read a memoir (Nafisi’s is one I’ve been wanting to read for years) and Ruth Ozeki’s book is very different/unique, especially when it comes to the contrast in the two voices. One of the beta reads I did last month was also extremely unique and played with time and even the form of the main characters as they transformed from boys and girls to a bear, an eagle, a fawn, and a sage plant.

In my reading, I’ve been far afield–Japan, Iran, the Pacific Northwest, New Hampshire, Ireland, and within a 400 year old Ojibwe legend. But in my writing, I have been enclosed–in a small cabin, in a small boat, on an isolated lake, with my main character focused on one point in time, one memory she must unravel. Is that why I’m interested in traveling far and wide in my choices of books to read? Were I writing a sprawling story right now, would I be reading something that was more contained, more restrictive?

Through the magic of Facebook memories (you know, those old posts that pop up and bid you share them once more) I saw this morning a photo I took of my not-quite-two-year-old son in a spring puddle. The trees in the photo are at least a week ahead of where the trees are now during our cold and rainy spring. The trees outside my office window are still tentative, still holding back, still a bit suspicious that winter may have one last punch to throw. They don’t know that the weatherman predicts temps in the 70s next week. They just know that right now, they’re still shivering.

When we’re feeling held tight or held back in life (by life?), we sometimes let our imaginations take us to all the new places we can’t quite reach. For some, that’s why they read at all–to travel to someplace new and be someone else for a while. I’m not sure I have ever had that exact feeling when choosing what to read next–I think I’d like to spend some time as a pedophile or I think I’d like to be a social outcast with a dog that brutally attacks other dogs while their owners look on, horrified. That’s Lolita and Spill Simmer Falter Wither. I didn’t choose to read those books because I wanted to be those people in those places. I chose Lolita because it was a classic I hadn’t yet read and I was curious about it since I knew it was controversial. I chose Spill Simmer Falter Wither because I heard the author, Sara Baume, interviewed on NPR while I was dropping my son off at school. It was a paragraph she read on air that made me buy the book immediately upon returning home, simply because I wanted to “listen” to her voice more.

In both cases, I knew enough to know these books would be downers. Already I know that Ozeki’s and Nafisi’s books could be downers. In Ozeki’s, the teenage diary writer alludes to the fact that she won’t be around long, hinting at suicide, and its clear that the diary washing up in the Pacific NW where Ruth finds it hints at the Fukushima disaster after the tsunami. In Nafisi’s, every one of these women is repressed, oppressed, or persecuted, prisoners of a regime that restricts them in every way possible. It cannot end all bright and happy and rainbows. At best it will be bittersweet. (No spoilers in the comments if you’ve already read it, please.)

So why do we read books like this? (And I realize not everyone does, but I do…Why?)

Maybe it’s because we know what it’s like to wait for a summer that is slow in coming, to look at bare trees, knowing they will leaf out sooner or later–they must, they always have–but with the knowledge there is nothing we can do to make it happen on our own timeline.

Maybe it’s because the fluffy book we read for an escape ends neatly, and what we really need is for someone else to acknowledge that life can be painful and beautiful and inexplicable all at the same time–and that it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Maybe it’s because our most enduring feelings are those of loss, regret, confusion, and anger–those things we cannot reconcile with how we feel the world ought to be: peaceful, whole, healthy, loving.

Maybe it’s because we live in the in-between time, the already-but-not-yet, somewhere in the middle of the story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Deep down we know all things will be made right. We just wish it was now. And so we read books that acknowledge that longing, that grapple with all those unanswerable questions, that show us the darkness–but that also present to us at least one character who endures, who makes it through the long night, who lives on illuminated by a ray of hope.

I like sad books and sad movies. I like happy ones too. But there’s something about the ones that cause you pain that lasts in my memory while the happy ones fade quickly away.

What about you? Do you want your books to be a pure escape? Or do you like a little (or a lot) of reality thrown in, even if it’s a harsh reality? What’s the saddest book you’ve read? Would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

“I don’t want to read the book. I’ll watch the movie.”

How many of you out there have heard this song from Switchfoot’s first album in 1997?

It was a favorite GenX anti-anthem of mine in college. I joined the members of Switchfoot in lamenting our generation’s general laziness and lack of ambition. But then this week I found myself in this very situation.

In 2003, Donald Miller’s memoir Blue Like Jazz came out and seemed to almost singlehandedly resurrect the memoir genre for the Christian subculture. Devotees sprang up everywhere I looked, so I figured I ought to read it for myself. However, despite enjoying memoir (I’ve read several over the past few years that contained some of the most lovely writing and emotion I’ve ever encountered in written form) I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed…I dunno…just a bit too whiny.

Whatever it was, I couldn’t relate, and so I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I’ve read nice quotes pulled out of that book and I’m sure Donald Miller is a great writer, but his story of growing up without a father, questioning God’s existence and God’s love, hiding his faith from others during college–it just didn’t resonate because my life experience has been different.

And that’s fine. Lots of people bought Miller’s book. Lots of people love it. He doesn’t need me to be a success.

BlueLikeJazzSomewhere along the way, Blue Like Jazz became a movie. A movie I had no interest in seeing, but that my husband, a compulsive consumer of Christian movies (both sincerely and ironically), kept badgering me about. Okay, badgering is too strong a word, but it kept coming up. And on an evening when there was nothing either of us wanted more than to finally sit down and vegetate, I said I’d watch it.

Blue Like Jazz the movie was pretty good. The acting was beyond the moon when it comes to Christian films. The book had been plucked for the most compelling storytelling bits. And it was made by the incomparable songwriter-turned-director Steve Taylor who wrote, among other things, most of the Newsboys songs I love.

The reason I bring this up is not to critique the book or the movie, but to talk about narrative. Narrative in a memoir and narrative in a movie are different. Unless we’re talking about some art house film at Cannes, movies generally have a stronger narrative and more forward motion than a memoir. A memoir feels recollected (because it is) while a movie, even if it begins with a voiceover from the narrator, and even if we then hear that voice now and then later on in the film, is experienced as though it is just now happening because we viewers get to see the action as it happens on the screen.

The medium isn’t necessarily the message, but it sends a message. It creates expectations in people that, when left unmet or when trampled upon, create dissatisfaction.

Occasionally you read an article that should really be given a book-length treatment. Occasionally you read a book that really only has enough substance for an article. Occasionally you read a short story that you wish was a novel. Occasionally you read a novel that would have been far better as a short story. Occasionally a memoir is better as a movie.

Is the form in which you are writing truly the best form for what you want to get across? Are you writing a novel because that somehow feels more legitimate than a short story? Are you trying to stretch a theme out to be a book when it would actually have more impact as a series of blog posts? What expectations do readers have of your chosen genre? Are you meeting and exceeding those expectations?